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Dr. Kim Whitler PH.D

The CMO’s main job is to put the customer at the center of everything her organization does. To do this, she needs to go beyond clichés — customer-centricity, customer journey mapping and big data. She needs a deep understanding of what the customer is trying to accomplish. She needs to design the customer’s experience to achieve the desired results, and she needs to track the customer’s journey to achieve those results.

Today’s technology makes it possible to track customer behavior down to the detail, and it can be tempting to solely use data when designing the customer experience. But driving your marketing efforts with technology isn’t necessarily the right approach. Marketing starts with understanding the customer: who they are, what they want, what they desire and what their habits and practices are. Then technology can help activate the organization’s ability to deliver on this insight. The challenge is that most firms are not focused on their customer needs.

Years ago, I worked for a large special event management company, where I first learned about customer-centricity.

Years ago, I worked for a large special event management company, where I first learned about customer-centricity. My boss defined the organization’s mission to ensure all events were approached with the highest level of service, as the client hired us to execute above satisfaction. We created events that ranged from tasteful yet affordable to exotic and luxurious. We prided ourselves on turning their wishes into reality while staying within their budgets and timelines.

Initially, my boss said that the marketing department needed work. The structure, the process, the goals, the measures, the accountability and the alignment did not support “what we all wanted for the customer.” In addition to designing the system, structure, etc., we had to think about what information customers wanted, when they wanted it and how they wanted it communicated. We began developing a series of tests to see if we could increase customer satisfaction, reduce the frequency with which we emailed customers (yes, to reduce it!) and increase our productivity per engagement and overall financial results. Our insights told us we were overwhelming some customers with communications, so we started focusing on making every engagement highly relevant.

We tested various ways to make a better first impression with customers. We created a two-month window to measure and test with the goal of improving the customer experience. Our analysis led us to change the way in which we introduced ourselves to potential clients. We replaced aggressive promotional emails with branded messages about the journey to describe the event of their dreams, no matter how big or small the actual event might be. We tested multiple streams and tracked customer behavior online and in person.

Our short-term metrics such as open rates and click-thru rates were much better for promotional mailings. A year and a half later, profitability was significantly higher, 20% higher, with the new customer-focused communications.

But it was a struggle getting there. Even though the CEO and everybody at the management level wanted to be customer-centered, there were many short-term distractors that forced us to look inward. Something as simple as merchants wanting to get rid of extra inventory (and therefore send out an immediate promotional email) can get in the way of being customer-centered. What’s truly needed is restructuring the way companies are organized to prioritize the needs of the customer over other internal groups.

Today, almost all companies say they care about the customer. They know it’s what they should say. But there’s tremendous variation in how truly customer-centric firms support the customer in achieving their goals.

Today, almost all companies say they care about the customer. They know it’s what they should say. But there’s tremendous variation in how truly customer-centric firms support the customer in achieving their goals. Do companies change their decision making process and their systems to think first about the client? Very few do. Saying you are customer-centric is one thing, but being customer-centric is an entirely different distinction. As marketers, we have the opportunity to change lives for the better. Whether it’s helping a bride create the wedding of her dreams or making day-to-day activities like laundry easier and less monotonous, we all have a critical role to play.

When I first became a brand manager in a major consumer packaged goods (CPG) laundry detergent group, I was faced with a predicament. I had the choice between two options that addressed the same problem, and both options were equally profitable. I went to my general manager, who said, “It’s very simple, Kim. Figure out what’s the right thing to do for the consumer and you’ll have your answer.” He went on to say,“ Determine what’s right for the consumer, then go make it right for us.” How many employees have ever had a boss ask which decision is best for the client as part of the decision making process? I venture not many.

Later, when I went overseas for that laundry detergent group, I quickly realized I didn’t understand “laundry” in this different culture, at all. Hence, I didn’t know what was right for these customers. Anything you believe to be true from the U.S. is not necessarily true overseas. And while I poured over the quant data, it didn’t provide the texture nor the granularity of color I was looking to really connect with my target audience. I wasn’t able to feel what it was like to be a woman and a mother in this country.

In order to remedy this problem, I spent time in homes watching women clean their clothes. I spent seven hours with one woman as she went through the ten steps to doing her laundry. I was filled with compassion for our customers seeing their challenges firsthand—their environment, their income level and resources. Then all of a sudden I realized, “Gosh, it may just be laundry detergent but I can really make a difference in these people’s lives.” Making personal connections allows you to focus on the deeper meaning of the mission, and gives you a degree of compassion and understanding that otherwise cannot be experienced.

Yes, you need to understand the customer’s progress on her journey from a quantitative perspective. But if your clients are nothing more than numbers on a piece of paper, then you are missing a three dimensional understanding that is necessary to creating real value, and frankly being more connected to the mission. And in the process of developing qualitative insight, sometimes magic can happen. From listening and observing, you see between the numbers, you see the texture that you can’t get when you are just looking at a spreadsheet. So challenge the C-suite to go spend a day in the life of your customer.

Putting the Customer at the Center of Everything