10 Rules for the Customer Century

A great deal has been written recently about how the Internet is shifting the balance of power from the seller to the buyer. Easy access to information puts the buyer firmly in control, meaning that in the new millennium (the Customer Century), those who pay heed to the buying process and its nuances will emerge as the big winners. Those who remain focused on the sales process will become 21st century dinosaurs.

Rule # 1: Focus on the buying process.

To do this, you need to become your customer. Put yourself in a situation where you become aware of a need that your product can address. Now trace your mental and physical process from that point through to making a purchase decision. It probably goes something like this:

  • I have a need.
  • Who comes to mind?
  • What are my perceptions of each option?
  • Narrow the field.
  • Research two or three options.
  • Which option do I feel best about?
  • Make a buying decision.
  • Reflect on the experience.

Once you’ve defined the process, take stock of your strengths and weaknesses at each step. For instance, you may realize that once buyers begin researching their options, it is not as easy for them to get the information they need about your products, as it is to get information on competitive products. If this is the case, then you will want to focus on improving access to information.

Rule #2: Think process, not project.

Here we are at the end of the 20th century. In many companies, marketing and sales are still not integrated and are still embarking on piecemeal projects that lack process continuity.

Instead of creating internal fiefdoms that do nothing to better serve the customer, both parties need to be thinking about the customer and their buying process. It is important to take every step necessary to make the buying experience as seamless and user-friendly as possible.

Rule #3: Big opportunities in micro-markets.

Market segmentation is more important today than ever before. That’s partly because there is more competition today than ever before, and partly because with more options than ever before, today’s buyers are more specific about their needs.

In addition, personalization technologies in both the printing and Internet fields have made it economically feasible to tailor marketing messages to specific micro-markets or even to specific individuals. And the more tailored your message, the greater the likelihood that your prospect will pay attention to it.

Rule #4: Expand your thinking about BRAND.

In the past, branding assignments have focused primarily on naming, logo design, corporate identity, and messaging. Branding has been about defining the words, images, and feelings you want associated with your brand, then building awareness of your brand and its attributes. Taking center stage today, however, is brand experience — what happens when customers and prospects interact with your brand.

Never before have marketers had so much control over brand experience. Brand interaction has typically occurred on the telephone, in face-to-face sales meetings, or at the point of sale — all domains where centralized marketing has little control.

Increasingly, however, brand interactions are taking place online — an environment over which marketing does have control. So use that control wisely and create a brand experience that reinforces the words, images, and feelings you want associated with your brand.

Rule #5: Know ME.

In the old days (1960s and ’70s), mass messaging and mass sales tactics ruled. No effort was made to learn about you as an individual to tailor the message accordingly. Mass selling eventually gave way to consultative selling — a process in which the salesperson begins the interaction by asking questions rather than giving a sales pitch. The answers to these questions define the content of the sales presentation. In other words, the presentation is tailored to the customer.

The biggest challenge here is getting the customer or prospect to give you the information you need to tailor your message. Phone, mail, and Internet-based surveys have been used with varying degrees of success. Invariably, however, these surveys are viewed by the customer as tedious, time-consuming, and of insufficient benefit to them. See Rule #7 for an interesting new approach to virtual consultative selling that may help address this challenge.

Rule #6: Satisfy me or suffer.

We’ve all heard about the consequences of negative word-of-mouth. Today, those consequences are far more dramatic, because tools like email, newsgroups, and even web sites make it faster and easier to spread negative word-of-mouth.

Rule #7: Humanize the interaction.

A couple of weeks ago at e-retailing ’99, I saw a very cool demo of a product called Klone Server from Big Science Company. Here’s a snippet from their brochure:

Imagine that you are the customer. Forget about economic or technical limitations. What is the perfect customer care solution? Its interface doesn’t begin with a form, it begins with a smiling face that:

  • Greets you when you arrive and recognizes you when you return
  • Converses with you in plain English via an intuitive chat interface
  • Is accessible from every web page
  • Is instantly available – 24X7 — even during periods of peak traffic

Klone Server humanizes web site interaction in a way I’d never seen before. This kind of technology allows you to profile your site visitor in a conversational manner, without subjecting them to a lengthy survey. It also allows you to address questions at the checkout counter in a manner that is very reassuring and will — I’m sure — have a dramatic impact on conversion rates.

Rule #8: Focus on the little things.

Amazon is the king of this. Not only do they communicate with you frequently regarding the status of your order, they also deliver “structured surprises” — little value-added extras that you were not expecting.

For instance, the first time I ordered from Amazon, they gave me a free shipping upgrade and sent me some free post-it notes — both little extras I was not expecting, which made me feel good about doing business with Amazon. At Christmas time, I ordered some books to be gift-wrapped and agreed to pay extra for this service. The books arrived nicely gift-wrapped, along with a note saying that the wrapping was complimentary. What kind of structured surprises do you deliver to make your customers feel good (read, “build customer loyalty”)?

Rule #9: Earn the right to expand the relationship.

Doing business in the Customer Century is all about placing the customer at the center of your universe. It’s about understanding the needs and interests of each individual customer, and gaining their permission to let them know about additional products and services you know will be of interest to them.

Amazon has earned this permission with me. Amazon has positioned itself in my mind, not as a bookseller but as the “customer care” company. They have treated me so well in the transactions I’ve conducted with them that I think of them as a satisfaction provider, which — because there are so few satisfaction providers — leaves the door open for Amazon to sell me all kinds of products.

Rule #10: Elicit participation.

In the same way that the Internet makes it easier for your customers and prospects to get information they need from you, it also makes it easier for you to get information you need from them. Engage your web site visitors in giving you feedback. Ask them to tell you how their “user experience” could be improved. Solicit their input on your strengths and weaknesses relative to the competition. Ask them what new products and services you should be offering.

I’ve watched this process at work over the past several months as Infoseek has launched the new Go.com portal site. Participants on the SEEK message board have offered their input on features and services they would like to see added to the site. Other message board visitors have the option of “recommending” a specific post if they consider it valuable. The Infoseek development team is able to scan the message board and identify the most recommended posts. They then read those posts and make appropriate adjustments to the site. As a result of this user participation, Go.com is now (in my opinion) the most customer-friendly portal on the web.

As Seth Godin says in his book, Permission Marketing, ” as a business, if you do it right, the dialogue and involvement of a customer will lead to customer loyalty. The more the customer is engaged — the more he or she has collaborated with you to fashion the service you are rendering or the product you are selling — the more likely the customer will remain loyal to you.”

Customers in the Customer Century are more valuable than they have ever been before. That’s because they cost more to acquire than ever before, and because, in general, they have less loyalty than ever before. It is a well-known fact that the longer you keep a customer, the more profitable they become. The winners in the Customer Century then, will be those companies whose primary mission is to build customer loyalty. They will do this by knowing their customers better, by delivering structured surprises that win the customers’ hearts, and by engaging their customers in the marketing process.

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