What is the biggest barrier to coming up with a customer-based marketing strategy?

Most of my work over the latter years has been around helping organisations to generate profitable revenues by doing a better job of addressing customer needs.  In the course of my work I spend a lot of time with the folks responsible for marketing and sales.

One of the exercises that I do is to get the right people from customer touching functions such as marketing, sales and customer services in a workshop.  And then I guide the folks through a structured SWOT type process for each significant customer segment.

The process starts of by asking the people in the room to identify what matters to the people in that customer segment.  What are the jobs that these people are hiring the company’s ‘products’ to do for them?  And what are the key outcomes that matter to the customers.  This is terminology that is not typically familiar to the people in the room so there is some tension in the room. At some point someone in the marketing function will say “Aha, you are talking about customer needs!” and everyone relaxes.

Then the answers come. Almost always the top five tend to be: brand, product, quality, price, and service.   Not particularly useful and I have learnt not to challenge people at this stage. So, I ask the people around the room to allocate 100 points between these five needs.  This is where the fun starts .  First, people really struggle to allocate weights to these five needs. And second, there tends to a lot of predictable disagreement.  Marketers rate brand and quality highly.  The Sales folks rate product and price highly.  The folks from Customer Services tend to rate quality and service highly. And if there is senior, dominant, person in the room then slowly the people in the room come around to his/her way of thinking and weighting these top five needs.  Notice something?  How confident would you be that the people in the room are providing you with an accurate picture of what matters to customers?

Next, I ask the folks sitting around the large conference table to identify their key competitors. And once they have done so I create a grid.  The columns are the company and its key competitors.  The rows are the top five needs usually brand, product, quality, price and service.  Now I ask the people in the room to evaluate how each of the competitors is doing in terms of meeting these five customer needs by giving marks out of 10. Once again the fun starts.  People really struggle to come up with weighted answers.  And there is considerable disagreement between people.

By the time we get to this stage the people around the room sigh a collective relief as if to say “Wow, that was hard work.  We are so relieved that this is over and done with.”

At this stage I am hoping for someone to say “Going through that exercise has made me realise that I/we know so little about what matters to our customers.  And how we compare to our competitors on what matters to our customers, as seen through the eyes of our customers.  So we should go and get better answers by conducting research, talking with customers, talking with the people on the front line who actually are in touch with customers on a daily basis.”  This rarely happens.

Instead, the people around the room have an air of assurance.  They are visibly convinced that they know what matters to their customers. And how they compare to their competitors. It is as if the hard work of the exercise that I have taken them through hypnotises them into believing that the answers they have conjured up have to be true, are true.

So the biggest barrier to coming up with a powerful customer based strategy is simply this: ignorance and prejudice masquerading as knowledge/understanding of customers.  The failure of people to say “We don’t know what really matters – jobs, outcomes, needs – to our customers.  We don’t know how customers prioritise these jobs-outcomes-needs.  We don’t know how our customers see us in comparison with our competitors.  Let’s go and find out.”

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant. Passionate about enabling customer-centricity by calling forth the best from those that work in the organisation and the intelligent application of digital technologies. Subject matter expert with regards to customer strategy, customer insight, customer experience (CX), customer relationship management (CRM), and relationship marketing. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise (marketing, sales, service), and Technology.

5 thoughts on “What is the biggest barrier to coming up with a customer-based marketing strategy?”

  1. Spot on,
    Most organizations have lost touch with understanding their buyers and their market.
    What buyers did back when you carried a sales bag 10 years ago is no longer relevant .
    Some try to manage fruit ripe as I discuss in my blog http://www.nosmokeandmirrors.com/2010/08/20/attention-entrepreneurs-you-can%E2%80%99t-%E2%80%9Cmanage-fruit-ripe/
    When I worked with Pragmatic Marketing they had coffee mugs that said; “Your opinion, although interesting is irrelevant ” because far too many teams try to develop a marketing strategy based on their perceived market knowledge instead of gathering unfiltered data.
    I will be sharing this post
    Mark Allen Roberts


    1. Hello Mark
      Thank you. I love the quote that you share “Your opinion, although interesting is irrelevant.” Love it! Now if we can only get people to act on that advice.

      What truly amazes me is the addiction with collapsing one’s opinion which is usually one’s prejudice with reality especially where reality is as it were a ‘rainbow of colours’. How is it possible to talk about thousands of customers as if one is talking about one customer. How egotistical is it to say that I know what matters to all customers? Yet, this happens all the time.

      All the best to you Mark and thank you.



  2. Maz, a fascinating post that exposes our weaknesses on so many levels:

    Self belief
    Group think

    The sad truth is that the only reason why organisations survive is that they are all staffed by people with the same failings



    1. I would add to James’ point…. another reason why they survive is because they use their reach, resources and influence to stop the game game turning against them.

      It is, however, turning. Slowly but surely 😉



    2. Hello James

      It occurs to me that you are a wise man. I thank you for making the time to share your thoughts. As for your sad truth, I find myself in total agreement with you.



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