Why marketing should not lead the drive towards authentic customer-centricity

Should the Marketing function be leading the drive towards customer-centricity?

The accepted wisdom is that the marketing function and marketers have the best grasp of customers – their lives, their desires, their concerns…..   Along with this is another piece of accepted wisdom: that the marketing function and marketers are customer-centric or they are the function/people who are the most customer-centric in the organisation.  If you accept “accepted wisdom” then it is natural to say and expect the marketing function (and marketers) to take the lead, even take charge, in moving your organisation to become a customer-centric organisation.

I say don’t assume.  I say don’t accept “accepted wisdom”.  I say check and challenge the “accepted wisdom”.  I say try on Karl Popper’s dictum that instead of looking for evidence to prove your hypothesis, and/or your taken for granted view of how the world works, look for evidence the shows your hypothesis is wrong.  Here is how the concept of “falsification” (which is what I am talking about here) is described on Wikipedia:

“The classical view of the philosophy of science is that it is the goal of science to prove hypotheses like “All swans are white” or to induce them from observational data. Popper argued that this would require the inference of a general rule from a number of individual cases, which is inadmissible in deductive logic. However, if one finds one single black swan, deductive logic admits the conclusion that the statement that all swans are white is false. Falsificationism thus strives for questioning, for falsification, of hypotheses instead of proving them.”

Looking at my experience I say that it is quite possible that the existing conversations and practices around marketing and the role/function of marketer it is almost certain that the marketing function (and marketers) are “not customer-centric”.  I can spout theory or I can share experience.  Allow me to share experience with you.

My recent experience with Amazon

I buy regularly and often from Amazon: I buy books (physical and electronic) and electronics.  This week I placed at least six orders for various items.  And I am happy to be do business with Amazon because it works out well for me: it is easy to place the order from the PC, the Kindle, the iPhone; the prices are reasonable; the items are delivered promptly; and on the rare occasion there has been an issue it has been easy to sort out.  If you asked me “Would you recommend Amazon?”  I’d say “Yes, and I have done so many times.”

So why am I displeased, to put it mildly, with Amazon?  A more accurate statement is that the emotion of disgust/contempt is present right now when I think Amazon.  Why?  Because of the recent email I received that offers me a “£10 promotional gift certificate”.  You might be wondering why I am not grateful with receiving a £10 promotional gift certificate?  Take a look at the email:

Thank you for purchasing from Amazon.co.uk.Your recent order 203-9422174-0673902 entitles you to a promotional credit which we have added to your account. This credit can be applied to your next qualifying purchase.

Promotion details:

Additional information on this offer can be found here.

A £10 promotional gift certificate has been added to your Amazon account to spend on Amazon Fashion.

To redeem this promotional gift certificate, add at least £40 worth of eligible clothing, shoes, jewellery and/or watches sold by Amazon.co.uk to your basket from the selection in the link above. Checkout and £10 will be deducted from your order total.

The promotion code must be used by 09 December 2012. This offer is subject to Terms and Conditions.

Thanks again for shopping with us.

Amazon.co.uk


Have you noticed the issue?  “The promotional gift certificate” does not show up as such in my experience.  My experience is rather like the experience of my sister and her husband when they moved into their flat in a manor house.  Shortly after arrival several of their neighbours knocked on their door, smiled, engaged in chit-chat and handed them a “Welcome Pack”.  Upon opening the “Welcome Pack” my sister and her husband found no welcome.  What they found was a list of all the things they were not allowed to do.  And a list of what they were expected to do.  In short, there was a mismatch between what the language of their neighbours had set them up to expect and what actually showed up.  Furthermore, they felt a sense of the neighbours being “dishonest” and “manipulative”.  That is exactly my experience.

What exactly is the issue? A gulf between the marketing orientation and the customer-centric orientation

I say that if Amazon’s marketing function was operating from a context of authentic customer-centricity then they could/should have done the following:

  • Thanked me – which they do in their email;
  • Let me know of the £10 promotional gift certificate – which they do in their email’;
  • Given me the choice of how I want to use it; and
  • Entice me to check out the Fashion section perhaps by making the £10 promotional gift certificate count a £20 if spent in the fashion section.

Now if Amazon had done that then I would have been delighted and grateful.  That would have occurred as a gift, as generosity, as recognition that Amazon get that I spend a lot of money with them.  And that would have occurred as a “Thank you for doing business with us through action/generosity and not just words”.  It is also possible that with that approach I would have checked out the Fashion section and maybe bought something.

Instead, the email communication has left a sour taste in my being.  Why?  I am clear that Amazon wants me to spend money with them in the Fashion category.  And this is their way of making me do what they want me to do.  As such it occurs to me that Amazon is treating me as “an object”, a “resource” to be milked.   Yes, I know that I am putting my interpretation on an email, I am making a story of it.  That is what we do!   Human beings swim in language and practices.  And one thing is for sure: in our existing practice a “gift” does not tend to show up as a “gift” if there are strings/conditions attached.

So we come to the core point.  The function of the marketing function, given the existing conversation/practices around the role/contribution of marketing, is to get customers to try out stuff and spend money on the categories that are of interest to the business at a particular point in time.  Put differently, it is to shape customer demand to meet the revenue/profit demands of the business; it is to shape the customer to sing to the ‘organisational tune’.  And this context/stand/mode of being and operating is the antithesis of the customer-centric orientation.  I remember joining Peppers & Rogers many years ago.  On the first day, the IT manager sat down with me, told me what budget I had to spend, what laptops were supported, and asked me to let him know what laptop I wanted him to purchase and set-up for me.  To this remember the thought/feeling “WOW”: these guys practice what they preach!  That is authentic customer-centricity in action.

And finally,

A simple thank you (with no “promotional gift”) that showed up as genuine would have left me delighted.  Many years ago Amazon sent me a “cheap plastic” coffee mug that I did not care for much.  The letter that came with it left me delighted.  What was great about it?  The UK MD of Amazon thanking me for being one of Amazon’s most valuable customers and wishing me a great Christmas.  It showed up as authentic and that left me feeling great about being an Amazon customer.

If you are the CEO then my advice to you is this: if you are serious about your organisation being/becoming authentically customer-centric then think carefully and skeptically about putting the marketing function and the marketing folks either in charge of the effort or even leading it! 

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

9 thoughts on “Why marketing should not lead the drive towards authentic customer-centricity”

  1. Not all marketers are bad. The social revolution in marketing has resulted in giving content that the customers wants instead of shoving it down their throats. Amazon’s email marketing is not tuning into what people want to see in their inbox. The language of the message was not warm. It was offering a business transaction. Capitialism sucks.

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  2. Hello Mike

    I say that getting into the discussion ‘good-bad’ is not useful. When it rains in summer some people say it is great- they don’t have to water their garden. Other people say it is bad because it has ruined their plans for a sunny day out.

    So I am clear that the conversation I am in here is not about whether marketers are good or bad. If you look at it from a systems perspective labelling marketing/marketers good or bad is about as useful as labelling the exhaust pipe in a car as good/bad. Pointless. My point is this, given our existing context/practices within/from which Marketing and marketers show up, it is highly unlikely that they can be customer-centric as the customer perceives customer-centricity.

    Put differently, my point is about workability. If you want an F16 fighter plane then it does not work to take a frigate and put wings on it and hope/expect that it will become an F16. Which is my way of saying the marketing mindset and the customer-centric mindset are radically different. And you cannot assume that you can take people that excel in the marketing mindset and expect them to adopt/lead the adoption of the customer-centric mindset and practices: you may be great at building/operating frigates, does not mean you will be great at building/operating F16.

    And thanks for entering into a conversation with me. I wish you the very best.

    At your service and with my love
    maz

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  3. Maz…great article…I find that this same concept is true when segmenting customers. It is tempting to use the segmentation already done by Marketing. But one cannot assume that the segmentation of prospects is the same as customers and – in almost all cases – it is different!

    FYI – I also received the travel mug from Amazon years ago. While the mug didn’t stand the test of time, I remember the thoughtful note that accompanied it. Over the years I have dramatically increased the amount of items I buy on Amazon – but have never received another thank you note! It’s a little pebble in my shoe..;-)

    As always, enjoy your posts!

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    1. Hello Nancy
      Great to hear from you and thank you for your support – you encourage me to keep writing! I hope all is well with you.

      Looks like you and I are in agreement. Segmentation shows up as a minefield for me. There is so much talk and so little practical understanding around it. My experience is that often marketing use a segmentation this designed for communication purposes – what message, what channel? Which is a very different say to segmentation by jobs to be done/needs. That is to say segmenting the customer base on the basis of why these people came to your business and how they use your product. Clayton Christensen gives a great example of this when it comes to some work he did in the fast food industry.

      Interesting that you and I have experienced the same experience around the Amazon mug and the thoughtful note. I have been doing some research on that and if what i read is correct then it was a marketing campaign that failed to generate the requisite ROI. And so it was discontinued! Yet for you and me it did make a big difference and we both upped our spend with Amazon because our affinity with Amazon went up.

      I wish you well and hope one day that I get to meet you face to face.

      Maz

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  4. Like you mentioned, even a genuine letter of thanks would have been more than enough to make you happy. But giving a “gift” with strings attached to it is no gift at all. Maybe if the gift card had been applicable to your past spending habits (we noticed you tend to buy X and X items a lot…) it might not have sent such a marketing-minded message. But I, like most consumers, don’t like being told what we can and can’t buy.

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    1. Hello Suarabh
      Many thanks for sharing your perspective. I find myself to be in total agreement with you. A simple note, handwriting, with heartfelt gratitude/thanks makes more impact on me then a £10 gift. The money I have and do not need. Thanks, genuine thanks, is a rare experience in the world of commerce that I live in and experience.

      Be well and thank you.
      maz

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  5. Maz,

    I too am the proud owner of a £10 promotional gift voucher, it didn’t leave a sour taste in my mouth, but then nor did it result in a sale, I just hit the delete button.

    How I will feel when I have had 20 of them though is a different matter

    James

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  6. Hello James
    Many thanks for sharing that. And you make a great point – the difference between a one-off and the same experience (unwanted communication) many times!

    All the best, I do enjoy reading your stuff, keep it coming!

    Maz

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  7. Hi Maz,
    It troubles me when a business talks about giving its customers ‘gifts’ when in fact they are conditional discount offers. Gifts are benefits or things that are given without condition.

    Shame on Amazon for a poor use of language and intent.

    Adrian

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