How Knowing Your Customer Boosted These Executives' Bottom Lines

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"During my early years in the company, I was fairly analytical in how I approached most situations. And although that served a purpose, I later realized that you can be much more effective if you recognize the importance of people in business. The sooner you learn about reading people, listening to others and building relationships, the sooner you will be more effective."

That quote came from Chevron Chairman and CEO John S. Watson who retired Feb. 1 after 37 years there. It's a good reminder that despite a society that has become impersonal in many respects, we still need to seek out those human interactions as much as possible.

"One thing I made my team do—it wasn't popular but yielded great results—was to shadow customers," said Elizabeth Petersen, chief people and strategy officer, Simplify Compliance, during a session at BIMS titled Bringing Customers Into Your Marketing. "This included marketers and product folks. They had to go in the field.

"It's a little bit difficult—we're in the health care world so there are concerns of patient privacy. But I wanted everyone to see:

  • 'How are your customers spending their time?'
  • 'How do they consume content?'
  • 'Where are they going when they have questions?'
  • 'How do they interact with people outside their colleague set?'

"So when we do promote products to them, where are they most likely to get that information?" Petersen asked. "Chances are they're not at their desk. It brought a lot of grumbling, and people weren't comfortable, but it has led to [successful] products."

Jim Sinkinson of Fired Up! Marketing agrees. "Interaction with customers has always been useful to us no matter what form it is and however imperfect it is," he said, speaking on the same panel. "Trying to find out the core motivation of a customer group, they can never tell you—it's hard to articulate. [It's information that can be of] great use for webinar topics, launching a new product, a traveling seminar show."

Brittany Carter, president of Columbia Books & Information Services, is all in on getting to know your customer. After several acquisitions, the small company she had helped manage and focus became a bigger company without that focus drilled in.

"[The new people] were trained to put their head in the sand and just get the job done," she said, "[thinking] it will be fine. So we acquired a lot of people who were afraid to speak up and get to know their customers. People who said, 'this isn't my job.' We had gone from being very customer-centric to a lot of people who had never interacted with the customers for fear of staying in line."

Carter knew they had a serious problem; they were customer blind. It all pretty much hit home when they acquired a company that published a same-sex marriage/HR compliance rules guide. Does this even apply anymore, Carter asked? The author assured her yes and they published it.

"We didn't sell a single copy," Carter said, and she soon found out that the last one didn't either. But because of the lack of transparency, "nobody knew," not even the author. "I said right there, 'We will rearrange this.' You don't think any of this can happen, but if no one is thinking about the end user and what the customer is telling you, then it can happen."

Even when she was president of Melcrum, a fairly large company, Victoria Mellor said that she always loved going on sales trip with the sales VPs. But it sounds like she might have made those VPs wince a bit. "'What are all those ebinders on your shelf?' I would ask," she said. "'What are you doing with those things?'

"What is open on your desk right now is a great question. They won't say what they're working on but they will say I'm preparing a presentation for the board. It's a good way to get to the bottom of the things they're doing. Another good question: If you had $200,000 to spend money on, what would you buy? It reveals hopes and dreams."

Chairman Watson would be proud.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…