Become a "Customer's Apprentice"

Customer Experience
Customer Experience
Listening to customers in new ways uncovers countless opportunities for differentiation and innovation.

When it comes to understanding your customers, the switch is on. We are moving from a world where research is something you do "to" customers (think about the almost surgical quality of terms like "customer intelligence") to something you do "with" them, as part of a collaborative relationship. Looking forward, organizations that nurture these relationships and take every opportunity to learn in partnership with customers will have a distinct advantage. By crafting opportunities for customers to engage, respond, and advise, you'll know them better, so you can serve them better.

We see evidence of this switch every day. Bloggers are taking an active role in advising the companies they care about on product development and customer service. Customers, empowered by social media, insist that they participate, on their own terms, in the creation and direction of the products and services they purchase. The insights they are providing are dynamic and fluid, reflecting the day-to-day interactions customers are having with brands.

This environment does not lend itself to a tightly structured script of how market research "should" be conducted. Rather, it is a call to action for marketers to take a fresh look at the possibilities. How can customer participation be most productively leveraged in generating and analyzing insights and recommending actions? How can organizations become better "customer's apprentices," listening in new ways to customers, and learning from them to uncover opportunities for differentiation and innovation?

What does it mean to be a customer's apprentice? An effective customer's apprentice demonstrates three key behaviors-

  1. Lives by the motto, "A customer interaction is a terrible thing to waste," exhaustively mining customer interactions for opportunities to weave in research mechanisms. This means identifying all of the points of contact between the customer and your brand. Where are these points of contact -- in-store, online, in the home or workplace, out on a busy street? How can you best understand customers' responses and decisions in each setting?
  2. Uses a framework to align information and insights with their organization's strategy. By starting with where you want to end up, you can create streams of insights that continuously feed your organization's decision-making and direction-setting processes. As Rob BonDurant, vice president of marketing for Patagonia, put it at the recent WOMMA Summit 2009, Patagonia has created a multichannel framework of "constant conversation" with customers, with the purpose of fostering clarity, ownership, and intent. "Clear is the new clever," he said. "Back in the day, marketers took unremarkable products and they tried to be clever to sell them. (Today), we have to be clearWe're admitting what we haven't figured out, and our customers are helping us." What can your customers help you figure out?
  3. Navigates organizational divisions or silos to gain access to the information and resources. A customer apprentice is proactive, seeking out the data that will make the picture more complete. That network of data will cross all variety of sales and communication channels, along with the informal ways that customers congregate and share their views, both online and live, in "real life."

The customer's apprentice is a traffic engineer of sorts, understanding their organization's infrastructure in all of its strengths and weaknesses, knowing all the market intersections and street corners that provide interaction opportunities, then overlaying the map of needs for the strategy, and interfacing with relevant sources to collect information. The apprentice applies the art of keeping the traffic flowing while extracting the right kinds of information at each intersection and the science of analyzing and evaluating the meaning of the information.

Once you've mined customer interactions, aligned insights with strategy, and accessed or created key resources for data, investigate how you can use what you learn to create advantage. Are customers surfacing their needs and preferences, or identifying the product features most important to them, or generating ideas for product improvement or enhancement? The role of the customer's apprentice includes helping the organization digest and act on new and deeper flows of information from the customer. For example, every week at Patagonia, BonDurant shares 1-star and 5-star product reviews with the designers, bringing the customer feedback loop full circle and helping Patagonia's products evolve more rapidly in response to the customer. How will you act on insights from customers to power your organization's strategy?

As the switch to new ways of learning about and engaging customers continues, the role of "customer's apprentice" will be increasingly important in helping organizations identify, build, and use new sources of customer insight and engagement. Now is the time to maximize the value of customer interactions and to bring customers on board as active and engaged participants.

Have you become a customer's apprentice? What have you learned from your customer today?

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About the Author: Traci Gere is the Managing Director of ExpM