Get out of that comfy office chair: Todd McLeay on understanding customers, not just numbers

In recent times I have observed a trend that I think all marketers should be on the lookout for; a trend where advertising and marketing is based on data and numbers, not people and behaviours.

More than ever we have access to information and research about our customers. And more than ever we are relying on it (and only it) to make decisions.

Yet with this comes a big risk: we lose touch with the humanity of understanding the people who buy from us. And I fear that with the latest obsession over ‘big data’ it’s only going to get worse.

I once had the pleasure of working for Sir John Goulter who, among other things, led Auckland Airport from being a state owned shambles to a publicly listed high-performer and one of the top rated airports in the world. He told me that he once received a complaint about the state of the airport toilets and announced to his executive team that from then on he would only be using the public loos himself—and that they were the only ones they were going to be using as well.

Talk about a turnaround. You’d be shocked at the number of people who work in service industries who never have to experience their own service models. If you work in a telco you probably have your phone supplied and your bill paid. You are probably spared the experiences your customers have, although you might read about them somewhere.

It’s not just service industries either. I personally have a bugbear with packaging. Do the people that sell this stuff ever have to open their own product (friendly message to Gillette: no, I do not have a pair of scissors in my shower)? And I am amazed by how often I have seen communications briefs where the person doing the briefing has never even met a target customer. I heard legendary creative Len Potts describe how he refused to fly between Auckland and Wellington choosing instead to take a two or three day drive staying at pubs along the way. It was in these backwater hospitality spots whilst mixing with locals that Len got the insights that lead to some of our most memorable and successful advertising campaigns. 

Steve Jobs is another exemplar of ‘customer-centric’ thinking. Everyone knows Steve was one for perfection. With every product launched under his watchful eye, perfection wasn’t an ideal, it was the benchmark. He may have just been doing this based on his own desire to render things down to their simplest form, but in the process he delivered a gift to us all. I suspect he knew that if they met his high standards they would meet the needs of most customers as well.

I’m not saying that research and data aren’t important. They obviously are, but your ability to use that knowledge well and to think creatively about what it’s revealing comes alive when it is morphed with empathetic understanding of the customer. It’s more than just hanging out with them, although that’s better than nothing. But the more you can get inside their heads and feel how they feel the better you will be at engaging them. It doesn’t sound like rocket science but believe me it’s scary how infrequently marketers are doing it. So go on, get out of that comfy office chair. 

  • Todd McLeay is chief executive of Whybin\TBWA. 
  • This story was originally published on LinkedIn.

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