The fine art of influencing customer-centricity

For some time now the dominant narrative within the marketing sphere – and indeed for business more broadly – has been one of achieving customer-centricity. The idea that business must transform the practice of how they engage with people to a model more definitively built from the needs and desires of the people they serve.

Indeed, IBM’s 2016 global C-suite study identified 1) an increasing focus on customers as individuals, and 2) increasing use of customer feedback as critical factors for ensuring preparedness for future industry challenges.

And this focus on customer-centricity happens with good reason. As the world becomes more transparent and information-rich, it is increasingly difficult for mediocre products and services to hide solely behind marketing hype. The genuinely good offerings rise to the top, while those with flaws in their fundamental function fall away, regardless of how well they are marketed.

However, while customer-centricity is certainly critical for business survival and success, the big question that looms from this focus is how we understand what it is that customers really want from us.

For most businesses, the current answer is simply “ask them” or “listen to what they are saying”. But this assumes an awful lot of self-awareness from people. And what we know about how people work in decision-making contexts suggests that such trust in the upfront awareness in our own needs and desires might be rather poorly placed.

First, we know that most decision-making happens in an unconscious space, based on habit, memory, emotion and using simple decision rules that we really don’t have, as individuals, a strong conscious grasp of. If asked, we can cognitively rationalise how we made the decision, but it is unlikely this answer is really what drove our behaviour.

Second, we know that decision-making is highly driven by our context. Depending on who we are with and what is happening around us, we will act in a different way or value different things. With one set of friends, Heineken will be our drink of choice, while with another social group, or at a different venue, we wouldn’t dream of making that brand choice.

So if our needs and behaviours are unknown to us, and change with our environment, how might a business ensure they speak to our needs in the best possible way?

Part of the answer comes back to understanding how our desires and decision rules are formed in the first place.

The influence of social context

What behavioural economics has demonstrated clearly through empirical testing is that our wants and behaviours are highly influenced by what we see around us. We like to make decisions that reflect the ‘norm’ for groups we affiliate with and situations we find ourselves in. We take the risk out of choice situations by absorbing the cues of both our social groups and decision context and using these – often subconsciously – to form our decision rules.

If people like us are drinking Heineken in a bar, we will drink Heineken in that bar too. If the default choice on a driver’s license form for organ donation is to donate, we will likely go with this.

Put simply, by acting like others we admire, by desiring the same things, by going with the crowd, we find a path forward which we hope will help us find acceptance and happiness.

Pretty deep stuff I know, but what it does shine a light on is a better path to customer-centricity than simply asking a customer what they want. If we understand the reference group and context for a customer in a choice situation for our product or service, we can understand what needs to be delivered to create a ‘customer-centric’ outcome with far more honesty and clarity.

So now, if we want to be customer-centric as a business, we can reframe our question a bit. We can now ask “what does our customer’s reference group or context suggest they should want?”

The Law of the Few

Here things get even more interesting because what we also know to be true is that our reference groups are typically guided by a few individuals who set the agenda in terms of what is desired, and what good or bad looks like from a brand perspective. Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point referred to this as “the law of the few” and showed how the highly connected and charismatic information specialist can drive massive shifts in opinion and adoption in groups.

Whether we are interested in base jumping, craft beer, model trains or Japanese micro dogs, there are socially connected experts who will act as reference points and influence thinking in our circles.

And with the introduction of social media, and the ability this creates to build highly networked crowds around interests, these influencers can now act on very specific micro-communities with huge effectiveness.

So to revisit the idea of being a customer-centric business, a big part of what can be done to drive centricity among a fluid and unsure customer base is to work with relevant influencers to create and promote fit with the product, service or brand.

Now, the idea of using influencers to drive marketing is nothing new. Wedgewood started the practice in the 1760s by using the royal seal to promote its china, and cigarettes would hardly have been the success they were without their long association with celebrity and the movie industry.

But there exists now an opportunity for business to go much further with the idea of influencers than simply using famous people to promote product via association on a wide stage.

Not just influencer marketing output but influencer marketing input

What the idea of micro-influencers offers business is an opportunity to engage those that influence choice much more integrally in the design and deployment of product, service and experience. Harnessing the very specific knowledge of highly networked information specialists, operating on a much smaller scale, to help business fine tune their understanding of what it is they provide customers and what exceptional looks like.

At TRA we often look to engage micro-influencers as part of our insight process. As an example, we recently ran a project for Air New Zealand seeking to understand what the future of air travel would look like. By harnessing thought leaders from crowds as diverse as architecture, tech entrepreneurship and fashion, we were able to refract their specific expertise to gain perspective on the future needs we would have to capture when we design experiences. The result was something much more nuanced than what could be achieved focusing solely on understanding customers via direct feedback. Other examples where harnessing the value of influencers has proved effective range from social marketing programs to media reframing projects.

The truth, whether we like it or not, is that we are all highly influenced in the choices we make and, more fundamentally, in the desires we possess. Influencer marketing is one step on the way to capitalising on this. By accepting this idea and then harnessing its full potential beyond just using influencers as a communications tool, business can achieve a huge leap in the quest to achieve customer-centricity. And as this quest sits at the very heart of being a customer-centric business, it is the next step we must start taking.

  • Andrew Lewis is managing director at TRA.
  • This article first appeared in TRA’s publication Frame: The Human-centric Issue. To receive a copy, please email [email protected].

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