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Wooing the elusive customer

April 10, 2008

In a keynote at the Forrester Marketing Forum, Gary Skidmore of Harte-Hanks posed a deceptively simple question: why are our customers our customers? He suggested that we, as marketers, don’t ask ourselves that question often enough.

In fact, he cited a study that showed 80% of marketers say they provide their customers with a superior experience. When the study authors asked the customers of those marketers the same question, only 8% of the customers agreed that they got a superior experience.

Skidmore argues that if our customers feel value just in being our customers, we will have hit the ultimate goal for marketing in this era of empowered, informed, and often fickle customers.

There’s power in that philosophy. Think about it–customers can get most hardware just about anywhere. After a time, computers become a dime a dozen. One company releases an ultra lightweight laptop, its competitors follow suit. One company releases multiple processors with 2GB of memory, its competitors follow suit. As the base product is commoditized, speeds and feeds no longer differentiate us because every vendor can offer a similar competitive product.

So beyond providing our customers with product they need, what are we doing to woo that customer? How do we make them feel like we want their business, not just their money? And make no mistake–even in the enterprise market, we do business with individuals, though they may happen to be part of a larger company or account.

Skidmore described customers as elusive, and he used that description very deliberately. He says customers are skillful at evading capture. Merriam-Webster online defines elusive as

elu·sive : tending to elude: as a: tending to evade grasp or pursuit <elusive prey> b: hard to comprehend or define c: hard to isolate or identify

And that is what we’re faced with these days: capturing our customer in the endless noise and distraction of the market. And if our customer is in the enterprise, we’re pursuing them in the endless noise and distraction of just getting their job done.

Skidmore offered three “simple, big ideas” for engaging with our customers:

  1. Being engaged means being personal. Know as much about your customers as possible. Make them feel unique, special, and even catered to.
  2. Change your thinking from the “inside-out” to “outside-in.” Our marketing strategy must be driven by our customers’ needs, not our IT or finance processes. (Easier said than done!) Engagement starts and ends with the customer.
  3. Customers are people so connect with their emotions. Every purchase decision and every user interaction is driven by emotion because there is an individual behind it. Customers talk about their experience, so make sure it’s a good experience.
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