Challenging thinking series – article 7

I am not a number. I am a free man.

The words of Number 6, the leading character in the brilliantly weird dystopian 1960s TV series, ‘The Prisoner’, have a lingering resonance. If you’re too young to have seen it, I recommend you seek it out. Think James Bond meets George Orwell, filtered through Kafka.

Number 6: Who are you?

Number 2: The new Number 2.

Number 6: Who is Number 1?

Number 2: You are Number 6.

Number 6: I am not a number! I am a free man!

Number 2: [laughs]

In the rarefied world of marketing and business the customer can become a similarly abstract notion, fossilised in data, pinned down on PowerPoint slides, their journey captured in spreadsheet cells. In our data-driven sector, customers are herded together into groups and types, with the unluckiest being reduced to acronyms, numbers and letters: B2B, SME, C-Suite, ABC1, DINKies, Gen Z. Or typecast by a key attribute that makes them sound like clans in a teenage dystopian novel – Prospects. Rate chasers. Loyal. Lapsed. Superfans.

The trouble is, more data doesn’t necessarily get you closer to the customer. You can still remain divorced from them, imprisoned inside an artificial digital world that has become so sophisticated that it thinks it’s the real world. A bit like Number 6.

So this challenging thinking article is a heartfelt plea from the living, breathing, messy, flawed but wonderful analogue world, on behalf of your equally living, breathing customer. “Don’t just track and measure. Be my voice.”

Customer-in not business-out

Being the voice of your customer requires a subtle internal shift in thinking. Businesses have new products. Services. Agendas. Initiatives. Campaigns. These are things their internal business objectives say they need to tell their customers. Stuff they need customers to know. So they push out messages about them. The result is a stage-managed, one-way conversation on their terms.

It’s like being trapped talking to that bloke at the party. We’ve all met him. The slightly over-friendly one who wants to steer the conversation round so that he can talk about himself. His exotic holiday, his highly paid job, ostentatious car, over-engineered mountain bike or annoyingly gifted children’s exam successes. If your communications are all business-out, rather than customer-in, sorry but your brand is that bloke.

Being the voice of your customer is about shifting this dialogue round from self-serving business-out to customer-in.

I want to get inside your head

It’s no secret that customers are more choosy, more informed, more empowered and more inclined to express preferences, likes and dislikes across a wider range of platforms than ever before. The balance of power has shifted. Most switched-on businesses know this and are looking more closely at how they engage with customers across multiple channels.

Brands who get this new dynamic are going to win. But it’s just as easy to get it wrong. It’s not simply enough to choose the right channel. Or getting your customer journey joined up. You need to get inside the head of your customer.

Put the customer in the room

One way to achieve this is to imagine the customer is always in the room. Give them a voice at every stage. In particular, imagine them asking ‘why?’ and ‘what’s in this for me?’ or ‘why should I be interested in this?’.

This isn’t just about simply listening to customers – research and data will give you those insights – it’s about being the customer’s voice.

Being the voice of your customer forces you to a deeper understanding of who your customers are, how they think, where they look for information, the other things they consume, read and buy, and the sorts of products and brands they need, value and admire. Raise the objections and ask the questions that customers ask. Address yourself to their needs. And pay attention to their concerns. Win them over by your intense interest in what they want or need, and your ability to provide it. Is your product or information easy to find? Is your customer journey fully aligned?

Some enlightened businesses are going further still and are building customer rooms to bring the customer journey to life for their people. These are fully immersive experiences packed with artefacts from the customer journey like invoices, letters, emails, order forms, screenshots, pictures, posters, recorded customer calls and feedback letters.

Where could this lead you?

This could lead to a social listening campaign, re-engineering your customer journey, improving a messy web process, inventing a new way for customers to get in touch with you, or adopting a fresh, more differentiated, more engaging and relevant tone of voice.

It could also lead you to running more structured workshops to understand customers more deeply, as an addition to data driven insight – bringing in a range of people from across your business to define your customer across a number of characteristics, and to map out the optimum customer journey, messaging and tactics that will really engage them.

It’s easy to dismiss the notion of being the voice of the customer as unsophisticated and old school. It certainly takes a dash of imagination, a lot of down to earth humanity and a little experience. It also requires a real interest in the lives, thoughts and motivations of other people, people who aren’t necessarily like you.

So, why not try walking a mile in your customers’ shoes? We guarantee it won’t just leave you a mile from where you wanted to be, wearing ill-fitting footwear.