Waikato University’s Roger Brooksbank on why marketers need to put customers first

At the heart of any company’s overall marketing effort is the need to ensure that the whole workforce is fully committed to satisfying customers. To this end, a key task of senior management is the creation of a customer-centric organisational culture, so that decision-making across all departments is undertaken from a customer perspective. This is not something that can be achieved in a short, sharp ‘overnight revolution’. 

Rather, it is an evolving process that managers need to plan and manage over time.  It requires the notoriously difficult task of disrupting ingrained working habits, behaviours, prejudices, beliefs and attitudes, and ultimately capturing the hearts and minds of all staff.

The benefits of effecting such culture change make it well worth the effort: it results in a sharper competitive edge in the marketplace, additional repeat business, less fire-fighting, and a stronger and more resilient bottom line. 

Backed by research

The effectiveness of a customer-led approach has been backed by two separate studies conducted in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Both studies examined how higher-performing companies differed from their lower-performing counterparts with regard to growing a customer-centric company culture. In each study, interviews of approximately 60 minutes’ duration were conducted with heads of marketing in six manufacturing companies, i.e. 12 interviews in total. Participants were recruited via three matched pairs of companies in each country – one ‘low performing’ the other ‘high performing’ – competing head to head in the same market with a similar range of offerings. 

Although the goal of cultivating a customer-led organisational culture was firmly ‘on the agenda’ for all companies, the research revealed a number of differences between the activities of higher-performing companies and the rest.  They clearly attach more importance to its achievement and employ a greater a number and variety of culture-building initiatives.  Most notably they understand that it is important to involve staff at all levels and from all functional areas of the business because everyone has their role to play.

In their findings, the researchers found that high performers consistently employ the following ten initiatives in their businesses:

Involve non-marketing staff in strategic marketing planning processes

Executives with the higher-performing companies reported that a wider cross-section of staff take part in their strategic planning activities. This practice enhances the quality of decision-making by maximising peoples’ knowledge, experience and expertise. It also imparts feelings of personal involvement, loyalty and commitment to the company’s customer-led strategic foci.  Specifically, selected staff are routinely invited to take part in SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) profiling as well as ‘envisioning’ future-focused scenario-building sessions relating to the company’s target markets. 

Hold regular brainstorming circles

Among the higher-performers, these circles were described as comprising an ever- changing mixture of about six to eight staff members drawn from all areas of the business who are then required to meet up for about 30-45 minutes for the specific purpose of generating ideas for better satisfying customers. Such sessions are typically tightly focused, often being described as either ‘problem-solution’ circles or ‘opportunity’ circles. Interestingly, most interviewees stressed that each circle’s ultimate goal was to choose just one of the ideas generated and ensure that it was followed-up and properly implemented.

Encourage salespeople to take newly recruited staff out on sales visits

Executives from higher-performing companies described this as an integral strand of their induction programme for all new staff. In most cases the underlying rationale was broadly explained as being three-pronged. First, it provided new recruits with the opportunity to experience and understand a customer’s perspective and to become at least acquainted with one or more of the company’s existing customers. Second, it fostered an appreciation among non-sales staff of the role performed by salespeople. Third, it sent a clear signal to all staff members that their company viewed serving its customers as its top priority. 

Communicate marketing successes, company-wide

Whenever a higher-performing company gained an important new client, had a big contract renewed, received top satisfaction ratings from a customer, launched a new product idea – or something similar, then as a matter of policy these types of success would always be communicated company-wide. Full recognition is given to each of the key players. Moreover, depending on the magnitude of the accomplishment, the occasion might even be marked with some kind of celebration. In this way, the message that marketing is essentially a cross-functional and team-based activity is constantly being reinforced. 

Appoint temporary ‘special project’ teams

From time to time, the higher-performers routinely appoint a team of half a dozen or so staff members drawn from across the company, to take part in a special project. The team’s collective task is then to undertake some kind of specific customer-related project over a limited period, concurrent with each team member’s usual work responsibilities.  Reported examples included: conducting a piece of market research, investigating and resolving a customer complaint, and carrying out a new product feasibility study. This practice ensures better results via a ‘cross-fertilization’ of skills. It also fosters teamwork and a mutual appreciation of each other’s roles.

Make the most of salesforce reporting procedures

Executives from the higher-performers described salesperson reporting procedures as an important component of their company’s overall marketing-intelligence gathering effort. Rather than focusing exclusively on sales-related information, their salespeople provided a wider range of marketplace feedback, such as customer satisfaction ratings, competitors’ new offerings, promotional campaign effectiveness, or newly emerging customer requirements. Here, the key to success is to work with salespeople in designing a simple reporting procedure capable of capturing such information, and then to gain their commitment to testing and improving it over time.

Put staff volunteers in the role of  ‘customer champions’

This practice was employed by two higher-performing firms that had offices spread over a number of locations. With this approach, a staff member is asked to volunteer to act as the designated ‘customer champion’ (alternatively ‘customer advocate’) within their local office over a pre-determined timeframe.  This person’s task, over and above their job description, is then to work tirelessly to encourage their colleagues to become more ‘customer-conscious’ in their work.  This was reported to be an effective means by which new and improved customer-focused systems, procedures and behaviours eventuated over time.

Reward ‘customer first’ initiatives

A policy of encouraging all company staff to be creative and to introduce new ‘customer first’ working practices and initiatives is endemic to the higher-performers. Such a policy is invariably facilitated by means of an annual roll-call of achievement or similar, whereby a number of prizes are awarded to the top achieving individuals or teams. Moreover, in two cases, interviewees reported that their staff are ‘empowered’ to be creative in this domain, to the extent that any unnecessary rules are dismantled and ‘creative thinking’ workshops are made available for staff. 

Hire staff who are already ‘customer-focussed’

Four of the higher-performing company executives commented that it’s more time-consuming and potentially expensive to educate a new staff member to fit in with the prevailing organisational culture than it is to hire someone who is a good fit in the first place! Accordingly, job applicants are checked to see if they already have an understanding of what it means for a company to be customer-led, or at least an attempt is made to ascertain if they are open-minded and willing to adapt their working practices, as necessary. 

Promote customer awareness, company-wide

Executives with the higher-performing companies reported that they put far more effort into actively promoting a ‘customer awareness’ message throughout the company, and using a wider variety of methods than did their lower-performing counterparts. Examples included: exhibiting one or more large ‘posters’ in the factory and despatch area, sending out especially designed computer screen-savers followed by related email messages,  making the most of company noticeboards, putting messages on payslips, and the like. The underlying rationale was simple: the more this message is reinforced and communicated to staff, the more it gets noticed, talked about and acted upon. 

In today’s increasingly sophisticated markets, cultivating a customer-led organisational culture isn’t optional – it’s fundamental to the long-term success of any business.

Although the core functions of each staff member should remain unchanged, their experience and knowledge should be leveraged to play a transformational role in the company’s ‘cultural evolution’. The benefits are many, not the least of which is that the business of satisfying customers becomes widely recognised as being everybody’s business. Whilst this article has described ten commonly employed initiatives, it is by no means a definitive listing. In fact, the range of options are only limited by the imagination. What are you doing to make it happen? 

  • Roger Brooksbank is an associate professor in marketing at the Waikato Management School (Waikato University)

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