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What is a customer?

When we use the word customer on our blog or website, we mean anyone who is buying your services – or who you want to buy your services.

Sometimes when we meet new people, they surprise us by saying: “Oh we don’t have customers. We’re B2B, so we never deal with end consumers.”

If you’re in a B2B situation and you’d rather call the people who buy your services clients, that’s fine.

And maybe if you’re a charity, you might prefer to call the people who give you money “donors” or “corporate donors”. And that’s fine. But we contend that the relationship you have with your wonderful donors is essentially a customer relationship.

We also hear: “Our products are extremely complex and we’re selling them to experts. They’re not customers, they’re leading scientists/engineers/technologists.”

This sentiment indirectly says that “customers” are idiots who can be conned into buying anything – whereas our super-intelligent clients are buying super-intelligent products and are immune from (and irritated by) any kind of marketing.

We say that the people who are buying these super-complex propositions are also customers. And here’s why…

A customer is someone who has a choice. They’re someone who could choose your services, products or causes – or decide not to choose them and opt for someone else instead.

A customer is someone you need to build a relationship with.

A customer is someone whose trust and respect you need to win.

So whatever your enterprise is, if you need to persuade people to buy from you or give to you, you have customers and potential customers.

From a tiny start-up in the food and drinks sector to an iconic British bank, we’ve helped our clients create an editorial strategy so they can plan their communications, improve their internal efficiency and increase their customers’ trust in and loyalty to their brand. Please get in touch if you’d like to talk to us about editorial planning and strategy for your organisation.

How do customers make decisions?

There is a lingering belief that customers make decisions based primarily on:

  • Price
  • Rational analysis of features

When you think this is how customers decide whether to buy your services, you can end up with terrible propositions and communications about them. You are also less likely to succeed in selling what you offer.

There is now a large academic body of evidence that customers, clients, donors – and in fact all human beings – make decisions based on all kinds of factors, including:

  • Learned patterns – this worked before, so I’ll do something similar again
  • Something we heard recently – the number “50” is in my head for some reason, so £50 sounds a reasonable price for this gadget
  • Anything that confirms what we already believe to be true
  • The fear of losing out – because the prospect of loss makes us more anxious than the prospect of gain makes us happy

Basically, the notion that human beings are rational is a myth. Instead, there is growing evidence that for evolutionary reasons, human beings avoid rational thinking if it’s at all possible. Thinking is hard – and doing too much of it can even be depressing. It certainly uses up a lot of energy. And a species that is fatigued and depressed can’t get out of the way of sabre tooth tigers, fight off infection or daydream enough to have great ideas.

Instead, we all navigate much of the world, kind of on autopilot. We take decision-making short-cuts and unless we’re incredibly motivated, we won’t necessarily engage in anything that looks like it’ll be too much hard work. It doesn’t mean we’re lazy or stupid. It means we’re human.

And that’s the case whether we’re brainy scientists, busy mums, suited corporate workers or anything and everything in between.

Knowing this should steer us away from creating communications that assume our customers are analysing the minute details of features in our product. Instead, we need to be creating stories, making information appealing and easy to speed through and prioritising benefits over features.

These are great books on the decision-making process:

What does customer-centric mean?

Customer-centric means putting your customer at the heart of your strategy. This means you will understand your customers’ needs, wants and pain points extraordinarily well, and you will create products and services they need and that overcome any frustrations they have.

Customer-centric communications start and finish with what your customers need and want. Customer-centricity means adopting the channels, formats and approaches that are most convenient and effective for your customers. So if your customers prefer to hear about your offer on Facebook, don’t make them read (or recycle) a brochure. However, if your customers don’t do social media and would prefer to leaf through a catalogue, make sure you create one for them.

Customer-centricity is also about what you say about your products and services, and the order you say it in. You may be super-interested in the features of your product – the fact that it’s built with ground-breaking technology or that it’s been scientifically approved. But these may not be the things that are the most interesting for your customers – even if, in your view, they’re the very definition of the things that make your product a million times better than what your competitors offer. Your customers are very likely to be most interested in how your product will make their lives better, easier, more entertaining, more profitable or more fun. In marketing terms, your customers are interested in benefits – or how your product will benefit them. They’re typically less interested in features – or how your product is built, and to an extent, what it can do.

So customer-centric marketing focuses on benefits (see below). And it uses channels and formats that make most sense to your customers (rather than using ones that make most sense, or are most convenient to you and your organisation).

Striving for customer centricity is also often a prime reason that our clients want to address their tone of voice. It’s about consciously using language in a way that makes sense to customers – and that suggests a customer-focused relationship. You can read more about tone of voice here and check out FAQs about tone of voice here.

What is a customer benefit?

Do you have a smart phone sitting on the desk next to you now? Or nearby in a pocket or bag? Great – now what do you like about it? Don’t think too hard, just say what you love about the phone.

Chances are, you’ll say something like:

  • I can read my emails on the go
  • There’s an app for that
  • I can take great pictures and filter them
  • It’s something to do if I’m bored

On the other hand, it’s very, very unlikely that you’ll say:

  • Well you have to admire the all-round capability of Apple’s A11 Bionic system-on-chip
  • It’s 25% more efficient than the A10 Fusion processor

Like customers the world over, you’re interested in what the phone can do for you, rather than what makes the phone work.

This is why all your communications should lead on customer benefits. Even if you’re working in a B2B environment. Why is your design of paraxylene plant better than the competitor’s? If you start talking about valve design, your customers won’t care. But if you tell them it uses less water and occupies a 50% smaller footprint, they’ll sit up and listen.

If you start your communications by focusing on features – or in other words, the technology, thinking or processes – you’ll be talking about things your audience isn’t super-interested in. By all means, once you have your audiences hooked, throw in some check lists that show why your product works better than all the others. All we’re saying is, don’t lead with this information.

Why is it important to know your customer?

There’s a post about this on our blog that you can read here.

How can I find out more about my customers?

Knowing your audiences is critical to creating the right products and marketing them successfully.

In his book, Management In Ten Words, former top boss of Tesco, Terry Leahy, describes how he would slip into customer forum meetings and listen directly to what customers were saying. When they grumbled about car park facilities, he’d take note. When they said they wanted particular brands of produce – or talked about what made shopping at certain times less attractive than others – he’d listen and feed everything back to his teams.

His aim was to make each store necessary in the lives of customers – to get rid of their barriers to shopping at Tesco, making each store a highly attractive destination.

Finding out what customers think of your products or services, what annoys them and what they love can happen in a number of ways:

  • Pick up the phone
  • Send a survey
  • Encourage reviews
  • Watch what people are saying about you on social media – but be aware, people are more likely to vent about frustrations than highlight what they love
  • If you have a customer panel, sit at the back and listen to people chatting

And remember to do it at least semi-regularly.

Otherwise, you could be making decisions on behalf of your customer, but not really knowing what they want or think.

In marketing, what is a pen portrait?

It’s really useful to keep your customers in mind when you’re designing things for them. A lot of organisations create pen portraits of customer “types” to help them do this. These pen portraits are a generalisation of a certain type of customer, and the purpose of them is to keep as real a portrait as possible of a customer alive in a company’s mind.

A pen portrait describes information about a “type” of customer including what they earn, what they do in life, where they shop, what they believe and what’s important to them.

These could be typical pen portraits:

Ben, 32, dad of one, works in marketing

Ben is married to Charlotte,  has a two-year-old daughter called Grace, drives an Audi, and collects 90s vinyl. He buys his clothes from Reiss and reads BBC News every day, and the Guardian occasionally. He is an active twitter user. He is politically agnostic.

Tracey, 54, stay-at-home grandmother

Tracey has five young grandchildren and is actively involved in their care. She enjoys watching soaps and reads magazines including Look! And Now! She spends 5+ hours a week on Facebook. She plans to vote conservative at the next election.

Pen portraits can be an extremely useful tool. They can also be ill-thought-through and less than helpful. They work when they’re well researched. They can undermine your marketing efforts if they’re simply cobbled together in a strategy session.

It’s worth remembering that most people who work in marketing are white, middle class, university graduates – and few of them are above the age of 55. Which means they are more likely to get a pen portrait of Ben right than Tracey. We’ve seen some truly cringing pen portraits written by recent graduates who are best-guessing what people like Tracey think and feel.

What is customer segmentation?

Let’s imagine a small company that sells one type of hot chilli sauce. It’s a brilliant sauce and it’s featured in some trendy magazines, so the production lines are chugging along night and day.

And now the chilli sauce company wants to sell even more of the stuff, so it ramps up its marketing budget.

The thing is, marketing is far more effective when it’s targeted. This means a generic: “Our sauce tastes good, so buy it” campaign is guaranteed to bring in fewer new customers than a number of highly targeted campaigns like:

  1. Totally vegan, totally spicy
  2. Zing up a basic burger
  3. Zero carbs, 100% taste
  4. The authentic taste of Indonesia

Totally vegan targets (wait for it), people who don’t want animal products in their diet. So vegans are a “segment” of customers for the chilli sauce. The second example could target busy parents who want to make mealtime exciting in easy ways – so they’re a second segment. Extremely health-conscious people are the third segment – while the fourth campaign targets more serious foodies.

It’s likely the chilli sauce company could segment even further.

Audience segmentation is the practice of identifying who different groups of customers are, and knowing what their motivations for buying your products or services are. You do it so that you can target individual groups and highlight what the strongest benefits of your products are for them.

Audience segmentation is interesting – and can become complex. Our example looked at a company with one, single product. Imagine what segmentation is like for a large retailer.

Segmentation is dynamic too – today’s vegans may become tomorrow’s busy vegan parents… or foodies. Or the Keto diet may be thoroughly disproved in a year’s time – who knows? For large organisations, keeping on top of segmentation is a full-time job.

What do we mean by “commercial environment”?

Most of us are taught to communicate in an academic environment – school, university or business school. And then it can feel natural to transplant everything we’ve learned about communications – and the ways people react to them – into every other environment we encounter.

When we talk about “commercial environments” it’s as a reminder that we’re not in school or uni any more – and so communications need to work differently.

Schools and universities are full of very clever professors, lecturers and tutors who have chosen to make their living, partly by reading and marking your assignments and essays.

They are amongst the few and rare people on earth who go home at night thinking: “Excellent, a night reading complex analyses of market forces!” They might crack open a nice bottle of red and revel in their star students’ best thinking and ideas.

They like complexity, because in academia (hey, they might even use the word “academe” – God help us) this is the way that you show your tutor just how clever you are. They may even mark you down if they think you haven’t used enough long, clever words.

To succeed in your workplace, however, you pretty much have to turn this whole academic approach on its head. Because however good your communication is, NOBODY is going home tonight thinking, “Excellent, I’m going to lose myself in my pension leaflets this evening.”

In a commercial environment, no-one wants to read what you write. No-one wants to hear what you have to say. So you’ve got to be really good, and use communications techniques your professors would have hated to get through to your audiences.

Read more on the blog: Commercial audiences don’t want to read university essays

Why is commercial communication different from other types of communications?

Please see above.