“The customer is always right” gained popularity as a catchphrase at the turn of the 20th century, when department stores were beginning to fight each other for market share. Presenting a “very generous attitude” toward customers was understood to be the way to a customer’s heart, and various retailers—from Marshall Field’s to Sears Roebuck & Co.—took it upon themselves to show customers they were the most gracious.
Some have begun to see the customer-business relationship as a zero-sum game, where giving a little “win” to one automatically hurts the other.
But that’s not how it has to be—and, in fact, that’s not how customer orientation should work. Marketers and advertisers can make their efforts customer-focused without diminishing their companies’ offerings or admitting fault. They simply have to get a little closer to the source.
Marketers looking to connect with consumers—and their wallets—have to find ways to bring customers into the fold. Here’s how marketing professionals can make customers the foundation of their work, not afterthoughts to be incorporated later.
Get real with your customers
Authenticity is more important to consumers than ever, with 90 percent of millennials indicating that authenticity helps them determine which brands to support. The generations that preceded them—Gen Xers and baby boomers—feel similarly, with 85 percent and 80 percent, respectively, saying that authenticity determines where their dollars go.
60 percent of consumers surveyed by Social Media Today said user-generated content is the most authentic form of content, allowing customers to weigh in on a brand’s efforts. Brand marketing carries a feeling of redundancy, whereas customers feel that voluntary content provided by other customers is spurred by positive experiences and affinity, and not by a need to pad the bottom line.
What all of this tells us is that authenticity can’t be manufactured—it has to feel honest in order to connect. Customers who feel that a brand is looking out for their best interests and thinking about their needs are more likely to invest in that brand’s success, fueling good feelings on both sides.
Abandon the need to impress and focus on the need to help
As Harvard Business School Prof. John Quelch says, some marketers “overestimate the level of intentional deception and the vulnerability of consumers.” This antiquated perspective has encouraged many a marketer to focus on impressing his or her brethren with sparkling ad copy or innovative imagery, equating flash and aesthetics with connection and appeal.
But that’s not how consumers feel. “Too often, marketing materials are sleek and sexy without taking enough time to consider what the customer needs. Despite all of the parties who might want (or need) to weigh in on your copy, there is really only one audience that matters: the customer,” explains Ryan Myers, senior director of content at Sapper Consulting, a company that aims to replace the cold call. “If you focus first on customer engagement, you’ll improve connections and increase conversions.”
Marketing content is meant to generate leads, but email marketing or online videos completely constructed around the idea that a certain brand is best or most capable of impressing does little to convince a customer that the brand can solve his or her problems. “Sure, you’re the one with the expertise, and you want to show them that. But you shouldn’t be the star of the show. Instead, focus on their journey and how you can guide them to the solutions they desire,” Myers says.
Myers advises marketers to shift the spotlight to their customers by using research, active listening and direct conversations to become experts on customer needs (and nightmares). Consumers will be more impressed by a marketer’s ability to understand their problems than they’ll ever be by cool graphics or well-worded ad copy.
Create a tribe of advocates
Marketers can help newer customers build affinity for their brands by creating a tribe of advocates. With 84 percent of consumers trusting other consumers’ reviews as much as recommendations from their friends, it’s important to highlight the customers who have rallied around a brand.
Mark Organ, founder and CEO of Influitive, a company designed to increase customer engagement and advocacy, says, “People advocate more when they feel like they’re part of an exclusive tribe, like when they belong to something that’s bigger than themselves—that’s when you see a lot more advocacy.”
Organ also notes that advocacy programs can’t begin and end with creating a forum for advocates to explore. “People want to be able to experience the impact that they made on a company … If you let people know the impact of those referrals that they’ve made, if you let people know if they’ve written a guest blog post or they’ve been on a podcast … how many hits did that podcast get? Did they get a thumbs up? Those sorts of things generate a lot more advocacy because people are getting that feedback.”
Another critical factor in promoting brand advocacy is social capital, Organ says. If people accrue benefits in their personal or professional lives as a result of the efforts they’re making on a brand’s behalf, they’ll invest in it even further. Customers who not only feel heard by, but also gain benefits from, a brand will be long-term advocates who strongly influence the brand’s bottom line.
The customer may not always be right, but not bringing the customer into the fold is always wrong. By embracing authenticity, elevating consumer perspectives over marketing flash and fostering brand advocacy, marketers can get past the black-and-white thinking of which side is right and move into genuine relationship-building.