Direct Marketing Article
Seven Things Your Customers Can Do Better
Than You (Here's a Hint: They All Boil Down to "Sell Your Products and
By Bill Lee
If you think your customers exist solely to "buy your stuff," you're missing
a huge part of the picture. Your customers are uniquely equipped to
influence your product development, sing your praises, and even close sales
for you. Here are seven things they can do better than you.
I want you to see your customers in a (lucrative) new light. The old
paradigm works like this: Your company produces goods and services that help
customers get a job done. In return, the customers pay you money. You take
that money and invest a good portion of it in traditional sales and
marketing efforts - including product developers, creative people, and
salespeople, all of whom are paid to figure out what buyers want and to say
good things about your company - in a quest to get even more customers.
Wouldn't it be far more effective to let the customers themselves drive your
sales and marketing efforts and fuel your growth?
The new approach makes so much more sense. No matter how much money you
spend on third party marketing people, they're still a layer removed from
those who buy. They can never really understand customers because they
aren't customers themselves. The organizations that achieve rapid growth are
those that don't just think of customers as "buyers of stuff" but as
advocates, influencers, and contributors.
In my book, The Hidden Wealth of Customers: Realizing the Untapped Value of
Your Most Important Asset, I offer a compelling vision for a more reliable
way to grow a business by maximizing "return on relationship" with what I
call "rock star" customers. When this is done right, a company's best
customers will prospect for the firm while also speeding product adoption
and improving customer satisfaction and long-term loyalty. It's all part of
a virtuous cycle: Companies improve what they offer customers, which allows
customers to gain more value from products and services, and thereby
improves what customers can offer companies.
The truth is, your customers are incredibly well equipped to market, sell,
and even develop your products and services. Here are seven things they can
do better than you:
Attract high-value information from other customers. This "inside
knowledge" of their peers creates stratospheric value. Facebook is the
quintessential example. Imagine a traditional company that tried to generate
the kind of information Facebook generates: real-time data on what movies
people are watching, what restaurants they're visiting, what vacations
they're taking, and what books they're reading. Facebook dispensed with all
the research most companies would have tried to dig up, and instead focused
on letting customers provide it.
Westlaw, which provides legal research services for law firms, is another
example. It realized that its clients were interested in how they and the
markets they serviced stacked up to other firms and markets. So Westlaw
created Peer Monitor, which aggregates anonymized data on firms' financial
and operational performance, collected from participating clients with their
permission—and this turned into a lucrative new business.
Believably promote your product. It's this simple: You've got
something to sell. Your customers don't. This makes them far more credible
to other potential customers than agencies or internal employees. SAS Canada
is a good case in point. The company was having a noticeable customer
retention issue several years ago. Retention rates had declined from the
high 90s to the mid 80s, which senior management felt the need to address
quickly. SAS software was doing an excellent job of keeping up with customer
needs. Unfortunately, the customers didn't seem to realize this. So a small
group within SAS, led by Wally Thiessen, built a team of 250 "customer
champions" along with 50 "super champions" to spread the word for them.
SAS saw that it would be futile for the company to keep pointing out how
great they were. However, they knew that defecting customers might listen to
what other SAS customers had to say. With support from Thiessen and his
team, SAS customer champions established regular events in more than 20
major cities, set the agendas, selected speakers (and made presentations
themselves), and stayed in touch afterwards via online forums and
e-newsletters. As a result, retention rates rebounded back up to the high
Why would customers make such an effort? SAS customer champions certainly
didn't do it for rewards or prizes, a mistake many companies make with their
customer advocates. Rather, they did these things because a) SAS software
really was doing a terrific job, and b) getting the word out to their peers
helped the customer champions build social capital. It increased their
visibility in their professional community, put them in positions of
leadership, and gave them access to insider industry information from SAS
Canada that they could then share with other customers.
Close the sale. Your customers make better salespeople than you do,
precisely because they don't have any (obvious) skin in the game. Plus, they
can honestly say, "This product or service worked for me. It can work for
you, too." Marc Benioff realized the persuasive power of customers in the
early days of building Salesforce.com. Lacking the multi-million-dollar
budgets of competitors like Oracle and SAP, he relied instead on
face-to-face meetings with prospects and customers in major city markets.
He was surprised to find that prospects at such events were much more
interested in talking with SFDC customers than with him and his executive
team. And he was delighted to find that 80 percent of prospects who attended
the events - and interacted with customers in such ways - wound up becoming
customers themselves. That's an amazing close rate for any offering. And
unlike salespeople, SFDC's customer salespeople didn't require a bit of
Understand buyer needs. Many leaders believe that customers can't
articulate their needs, much less develop ideas for products to satisfy
them. This is just not true. A substantial body of well-established research
has shown that many if not most successful innovations are
customer-originated. In one compilation of studies of 1,193 commercially
successful innovations across nine industries by MIT's Eric von Hippel, 737
(60 percent) came from customers. That's why companies that struggle with
product development should consider looking outside to customer innovators.
3M's Medical-Surgical Markets Division tried a last-gasp project in the
1990s to kick-start its consistently poor innovation record. It formed a
team designed to bypass the internal innovation process and search for
breakthrough innovations being created by outside "lead users." When the
results were compared with ordinary product development projects at 3M, the
differences were dramatic: Lead-user innovations achieved average revenue of
$146 million in their fifth year, compared with $18 million for internally
Connect with your prospects (a.k.a., their peers). By nature, most
all of us are open to creative new ways to affiliate with our friends and
peers. On the other hand, we're not that excited about getting close to
companies - a mistake many companies make when they set out to form
communities around their brand. (Let's face it: Corporate logos and official
spokespersons don't exactly promote the warm and fuzzy connections that
invite confidences!) The key is to figure out a way to foster a dialogue
between customers and their peers that touches on issues related to your
Procter & Gamble's Being Girl community for teen and pre-teen girls was
initially formed to promote feminine hygiene products. Because P&G knew TV
and print ads made its young audience uncomfortable, it enlisted experts to
provide content. When this created little interest, P&G established forums
so that girls could talk to each other about the issues and challenges of
growing into young womanhood. Finally, the site took off. Girls from around
the world were eager to get into the conversation - and P&G was able to
market its products more subtly and effectively than before.
The bottom line is that customers are more apt to trust and care about
information when it comes from a peer rather than an organization.
Energize your online and social media marketing. Many firms are
getting nowhere with their web and social media marketing efforts. That's
often because they're trying to adapt traditional marketing communications
to these mediums. They need to get creative about bringing customers into
Intel, for example, credits well-designed customer testimonials and other
customer content for an explosion in the creation of qualified prospective
customer interest and inquiries through its once-lagging social media and
web marketing efforts. The company can't share the numbers publicly, but I
can say that within a few years, it expects to bring in a significant
percentage of all its new business through its website efforts and the key
to this growth is content from its existing customers.
In 2011, Salesforce.com cut traditional lead generation spending by 69
percent while increasing spending on customer videos (by 1,300 percent) and
social media. One early result from that was an increase in contacts
generated by social media of 400 percent.
Help to penetrate new markets. When seeking to penetrate new markets,
firms typically recruit some mix of local employees or agencies into their
marketing and sales efforts. How about local customers?
Microsoft has perfected the art of finding and engaging with local "MVP"
(Most Valuable Professional) customers who play a central role. An example
is "Mr. Excel," who runs a website by that name, which on some days attracts
more visitors than Microsoft's own Excel page! Many companies would have
issued a cease and desist order or filed a lawsuit. Microsoft embraces and
supports such customers - now numbering some 4,000 around the world. These
customers provide the firm with highly effective marketing communications
and superb product testing and feedback. They also provide exceptional, and
free, customer support - which has saved Microsoft hundreds of millions of
dollars in support costs.
Companies often say that "customers are our best assets." But most of the
value of these assets lies fallow. Now, with the advent of social media and
a global marketplace, more and more companies are starting to harvest these
assets and are propelling their organizations to rapid and sustained growth.
About the Author:
Bill Lee, author of
The Hidden Wealth of Customers: Realizing the Untapped Value of Your Most
Important Asset, helps organizations reinvent customer relationships and
accelerate growth through the creation of engaged, passionate customer
advocates and communities. He pioneered the concept that return on
relationship is the key to organic growth in organizations of any size,
public or private.
The CEO of educational organization Customer Reference Forum, Bill has spent
the last eight years building vibrant communities of customer engagement
professionals. His conferences, including the Summit on Customer Engagement,
have attracted many of the world's leading global ?rms, such as Microsoft,
Apple, Oracle, Dell, EMC, SAP, Red Hat, Wells Fargo, Salesforce.com, SAS
Institute, AmerisourceBergen Corporation, Research In Motion, AT&T,
Alcatel-Lucent, IBM, Siemens, and many others.