How Customer-Centered hurts your brand

Posted on May 14, 2011

You’re proud of your customer service. What could be wrong with that?

Several things. For one, if you are truly “centered on your customers,” offer “great customer service,” or try to stay “close to the customer,” (to quote three clichés), you will miss great growth opportunities, and probably adopt a less-than-powerful brand strategy. To readers of business books, this probably sounds like heresy.

But there are at least three ways that your customer focus works against you:

• Satisfaction with incremental growth,
• Not understanding the real growth audience,
• Not crafting a growth brand promise.

Take care of your customers, grow 6%. You can experience steady, modest growth – a steady, modest goal. Quite often, however, meeting that mission turns salespeople into order takers. Nobody gets fired, customers are happy, and that growth means you’ll double in size in 12 years. Steady, modest congrats. But suppose you want to light some fires to double the size of your company a whole lot sooner?

Your leveraged growth audience is prospects, not customers, and that’s a real problem, because nobody knows prospects as well as they know customers. Nevertheless, to ignite serious, more-than-incremental growth, prospects are who we have to understand. We don’t know them or speak to them often. We don’t know what makes them different or where they hide or why they perversely persist in purchasing from our competitors. Please don’t misunderstand – we are not advising you to neglect customers. Take care of mother. Their repeat purchase behavior will still give you that +6% if operationally you serve them well. They’re far more interested in your product or service performance than in your brand message. But don’t neglect getting that brand message in front of the real growth audience: after all, they outnumber your customers by what? 100 to 1? 1000 to 1?

The third drawback? “We’re all about our customers” is a limp brand promise. However heartfelt it may be, it’s totally overused, hopelessly ordinary and not credible as a result. It’s understandable that every company believes it, and wants to believe it, and talks to customers who actually do believe it – but strong brands stand for something. One something. One meaningful, distinctive, differentiated, appreciated something. That’s why saying what everybody else in your category says is a non-starter.

So, what should that meaningful, distinctive, differentiated, appreciated brand promise be? Ah. We’re ready to talk brand strategy now. Holler.

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5 Comments

  1. Alan Beim
    May 19, 2011

    Very interesting perspective and it is unique and something worth giving a lot of thinking to. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Jay Olson
    May 19, 2011

    Bob, thanks for penning such a controversial topic.

    To quote Peter Drucker, “Business has only (2) basic functions – Marketing and Innovation.” To achieve both requires identifying unmet needs in the marketplace (even before they exist) and creating strategies to solve them. Reaching beyond exisiting demand requires either creating completely new markets or reconstructing existing market boundaries.

    In either case, I would agree that listening to your existing customers alone probably won’t get you there. Listening to potential new customers (or end-users for that matter) on the PERIPHERAL of your existing markets provides far more informative insights and/or validation for growing your business and extending your brand beyond your core markets.

    Reply
  3. Paul van Winkle
    May 19, 2011

    Thank you, Bob. thank you. Simply brilliant. Why? Because it zags (from distinct insight into the mission at hand) while every other lemming is zigging.

    Which is exactly the point.

    Reply
  4. Dayne Stern
    May 20, 2011

    Good morning Bob

    Thank you for this refreshing perspective. I am all for keeping my customers happy and loyal by going above and beyond, but to reach my target I have to develop new business. Furthermore, this new business has to be developed at a quicker rate than repeat orders or referral allows.

    Reply
  5. Jack Trytten
    May 21, 2011

    Last things first —
    We’re all about our customers is just plain nothing. To say it’s a non-starter is almost a complement.

    Now I have a few issues with what you’re saying earlier. Specifically, if you’re trying to promote your product to your existing customers, you’re right. This is a waste of time. Unless a competitor is aggressively focused on trying to turn your customers into past customers. Just because they’re yours doesn’t mean they’re yours forever. (except for Killian Branding)

    But if you’re proud of your customer service, and I assume because your customers agree that you do have great customer service, then you should be proud. It’s still a lousy promise to make to prospects as most of us hope we never have to find out if the customer service is good or not.

    Customer service isn’t going to bring new customers into the door. You have to have a product or service that delivers on a strong promise and that promise becomes the heart of your marketing. In such a case, promising good customer service is akin to saying we have a pretty good product most of the time but when it’s not we try to make it good.

    But don’t ignore your current customers or they’ll become your prospects. (someone else’s customers).

    Reply

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