Courtney Eckerle

Advice on How to Make the Case for a Customer-Centric Transformation

March 27th, 2017

Customer-centric isn’t just a buzzword to us — those marketing efforts are the stories that we love to tell at MarketingSherpa. From our case studies to our data, we want to give you everything you need to keep your customer foremost in your marketing efforts.

In October 2016, we surveyed two groups of 1,200 about customer-first marketing. We asked one group 50 questions about the business, marketing and channel practices that make them highly satisfied with a company. We asked the other group similar questions about what makes them highly unsatisfied with a company.

We provided Sarah Esterman, Lifecycle Marketing Manager,, and Jamey Bainer, Strategy and Planning Director, Pacific, with two of the charts created using that data, which asked 1,200 highly satisfied customers: “Thinking about the marketing of [the company they were highly satisfied with] which of the following is true about your experience? Select all that apply.”

Chart 1-Customer-First-Research-Study

(click image to enlarge)

The same question was asked of 1,200 highly unsatisfied customers — with a very different result:

Chart 2-Customer-First-Research-Study

(click image to enlarge)

Armed with that information, we asked Sarah and Jamey five questions about the trials, tribulations and tips for implementing customer-first marketing.

Editor’s Note: Sarah Esterman is speaking at MarketingSherpa Summit 2017, and Jamey Bainer participated in the sponsored Summit content “Inside the Industry.”

Q: What are some arguments marketers can use to push for customer-centricity in their organizations?

Sarah Esterman, Lifecycle Marketing Manager,

First thing’s first: Understand the priorities of the people you’re talking to. If they are beholden to revenue and precise financial outcomes, you’ll get further if your argument is grounded in data. Map out how your conversion rate or revenue has eroded over time without customer-centric marketing and project how much you could be making by switching gears. If you’re only focused on the short-term business gains and not looking at the long-term, your way of doing things won’t be sustainable.

At the core level, remember that when you talk about customer-centric marketing, you’re talking about user experience, acquisition and retention. You can acquire all the customers in the world, but if you don’t have a good user experience, you won’t keep many of those customers. (Also, chances are you’ll be able to attract more customers with a great user experience than you would otherwise.) A long-term relationship with customers is good for both your business and your customers.

Jamey Bainer, Strategy and Planning Director, Pacific

The best argument is objective reality: We live in an era where customers have complete control over their own purchase journeys and about a million different touchpoints where they can choose (or choose not) to interact with brands that provide the products and services they are seeking out. The days of shooting consumers down an inverted funnel are long gone. Now, you need to be present in the precise moments when the consumer needs you, when they have a question you can answer, when you can demonstrate relevance and value through the interaction. Taking that into consideration, it would be career suicide NOT to develop a customer-centric strategy within your organization.

Still, people choose to deny reality in favor of their own warped perceptions every day, so here are a couple tricks to use if you need to make the case for customer-centricity:

  • Call expert witnesses to the stand. There is a mountain of evidence, produced by the best industry reporters and thought leaders in the business (including here at MarketingSherpa) that proves out my thesis of our brave new customer-centric world. If you need it, there are reams of quantitative, statistically relevant case studies that detail how the most successful brands, regardless of industry, are leveraging customer-centric thinking to drive their growth.
  • Find the smoking gun in your own house. Rally your teams and channel managers together in a room, and have everyone hit re-set on what they think they know about your customer’s purchase journey. Map it all out again from scratch — channel by channel, touchpoint by touchpoint. Isolate the touchpoints where consumers are falling off and identify what’s driving the drop-offs: Are you serving the wrong message in the wrong place? Did you have enough understanding of what questions the consumer wanted answered and where you fell short? Are you invisible in a crucial touchpoint where you most need to be discoverable? If done well, you should end up with a clear map of the places where you didn’t consider the customer enough, along with a more concrete picture of how much money that cost you. Together, those two things will make a great case for customer-centricity.

Q: How far must brands and marketers go to satisfy customers?

Esterman: It’s not about how far you’re willing to go; it’s about building your business so that the customer (and what they want/need) is thought about at every level. Yes, even operationally.

Here at Simple, you can see this in the way we’ve structured our business model; we only make money when customers love and use our product by swiping their cards or keeping deposits in their accounts. This means that the ownership is entirely on us to build a product that delivers what we promise (confidence with their money) and that our customers will want to use and even tell their friends to use. For example, we just launched our second ever product: Shared accounts. Customers wanted a way to share money as they grew with their individual Simple account. Rather than roll out a classic joint account, we asked customers what they would like to see and built something new — that we can confidently market to every type of partner, from romantic to roommate.

Now, obviously not every business model is structured like Simple’s, and that’s OK. You can still do right by your customers by using research and data to understand what they need and ultimately remembering that your customers are people, not just numbers on a sheet.

Bainer: This is best answered with another question: How far are your competitors willing to go to satisfy your customers? It doesn’t take an industry-shattering moment of innovation to quickly de-throne a market leader. Does a competitor’s checkout process have one less step than yours? Does its mobile site run a second faster? Does it accept one more online payment option than you do? Is the threshold for free shipping $5 cheaper than your own? Was its sales associate just a little bit more sincere and proactive when the customer had a problem?

Even these seemingly small touches can cause massive shifts in the competitive landscape of any industry. That’s because they all speak to providing customers with a flawless experience.  The only real benchmark here is the customer’s own expectations: How far do THEY think you should go to satisfy them? They experience “flawless” every day from a variety of brands, technologies and apps. They expect the same from you.

Without venturing outside the world of sanity and scalability, you need to be willing to go as far as it takes to meet your customer’s expectations. If you don’t, your competitors will.

Q: In building a customer relationship, what are some possible missteps?

Esterman:  Like in any relationship, trust is essential. Without trust, you can’t have a successful long-term relationship. Saying one thing but doing another or over-promising and under-delivering can damage your customer’s trust in your business.

Being too aggressive and messaging too much too fast can also be a problem. You wouldn’t go on a first date with someone and then expect to move in together the next day. On the other hand, you also wouldn’t want to seem disinterested. As marketers, we need to find the balance between overwhelming our customers with information and being “radio silent” by getting them the right messages, in the right medium, at the right time.

Bainer: Retargeting and remarketing, despite being incredibly effective marketing tactics, can also be relationship killers when done poorly. This often occurs because the retargeting kicks off before the relationship has really been established. Suddenly, your brand becomes the creepy stalker following someone around the internet. Perhaps more annoyingly, people who actually bought from you can remain stuck in your retargeting bucket for weeks, or even months, after the purchase. There are many annoying forms of advertising in the world, but that’s one of the worst.

Making assumptions is never healthy for a relationship. Do you really know your customer’s needs, questions, aspirations and pain points, or are you just assuming that knowledge without doing the heavy lifting in the research process? Take the time to learn and to listen. Don’t decide on a strategy and then attempt to map it to your assumptions about the consumer. Everything should be reverse-engineered from the consumer’s perspective. Learn what they need first and give it to them.

Q: Why wouldn’t companies practice customer-first marketing?

Esterman: Let’s start with the obvious and get it out there: potential short-term revenue loss. When you start taking a customer-first marketing approach, you’ll see a change in the way customers react. It’s possible you won’t see as many sales or the same level of new customer acquisition at first — which can cause a panic and lead companies to switch back to their old tactics rather than investing in building customer relationships that lead to long-term gains.

More than the money: It’s hard work, and if executed poorly (for example, if your customers see that you’re trying too hard to be relatable), it can be damaging to your brand. Great customer-first marketing begins with understanding who your customer is, what they need, and who you are as a brand. And that customer knowledge comes from brand clarity — knowing who you are and what you have to offer. It’s an investment of time, energy, and brainpower that has to happen in the right order; you can’t put the customer-first marketing cart before the brand horse.

Bainer: There are two main drivers for this: siloed organizational structures and misinterpretation of the “it’s all about conversions” line of thinking. In the first case, many organizations maintain such strict silos between their internal teams that it becomes impossible to do customer-first marketing, as no one in the organization has a complete 360-degree view of the customer, and the data that would inform this view is splintered across a dozen or more different teams who aren’t communicating or sharing with one another.

The second case, which often goes hand-in-hand with the first, will occur when organizations start to think they are smarter than they actually are by preaching the “it’s all about conversions, dummies” orthodoxy. This is a popular philosophy because it’s impossible to argue against. Who wants to make case against selling and profiting? But in reality, it’s a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. Conversion-first thinking fosters complacency: It allows too many organizations to escape accountability for the lost revenue that is always a bi-product of focusing all your attention on only users in what would be considered the bottom of a traditional sales funnel. Things that conversion-first thinkers will dismiss as “upper-funnel” or “long-tail” will ultimately be the gaps your competitors take advantage of to steal your market share.

Ultimately, a “conversion” is a person — a person who chooses to purchase from you based on how well you understood his/her needs along the entirety of his/her complex purchase journey. Too many companies forget that. Don’t let yours be one of them.

Q: How can marketers fight against inward, or company-centric thinking?

Esterman: I created a very basic flowchart for this during my first month at Simple. It asks, “Who does this benefit the most?” The answer should fall somewhere in the middle between “customer” and “company,” but if it’s skewing towards just the company, that’s when it’s time to rethink the strategy. To this day, anytime a colleague asks me if we should message a customer — for any reason — we can refer to those questions and find our answer.

Research and data are also so helpful with this. Use external customer feedback to guide you, and if you don’t already have a customer feedback loop, create one. We use Net Promoter Score to get both quantitative and qualitative feedback, for instance. You can also use industry research or user studies to find out what your customer needs and cares about.

And don’t forget A/B testing! Test out different strategies and tactics to get your own data and proof points about what works best for your customers and your business.

Ultimately, though, what helps me keep customers’ needs and priorities at the center of the work I do is remembering who we’re building our product for: our customer. So, of course they should be at the center of our marketing! If you ever wonder if you are marketing, messaging or pushing something out into the world the right way, just ask yourself, “Who is this product for?” If your answer isn’t the same as who you’re marketing for, I recommend revisiting your strategy.

Bainer: Again, make the case for a customer-centric approach by mapping the touchpoints where a specific lack of customer-first thinking is making you lose customers (and helping competitors gain them). Data and research are your friends, so gather as much as you can from your internal teams, from competitive analysis, and from industry thought leaders to help make your case. If you have the power within your organization to tear down silos and institute customer-centric collaborations, do so, and if you don’t have the power, start bending the ear of the person who does. Utilize social listening tools to augment your existing customer data with a broader picture of trends, sentiments and conversations across the digital sphere. Track and monitor your competitors like a hawk (you can never put too many resources towards this effort).

Finally, don’t forget: It’s the question that counts. If you’re not answering your customers’ questions, your competitors will.

You might also like…

See more speakers like Sarah Esterman at MarketingSherpa Summit 2017

Marketing Chart: Does customer-centric marketing fall short of satisfying the customer?

Customer-first Marketing: Do you put your customers’ interests first?

Ecommerce Chart: How brands try to improve customers’ shopping experience

Courtney Eckerle

About Courtney Eckerle

With a focus on aspirational, customer-first marketing, Courtney’s goal has been to produce clear, interesting and actionable external content for MarketingSherpa readers. This has included writing over 300 case studies, moderating live event interviews, and producing video content. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, Mass Communications and Film Studies from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., and was a correspondent for USA Today College prior to joining MECLABS Institute.

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