Understanding customers, cost or asset?

Ask a bunch of business people and they will all go on of the importance of consumer insight, of putting the customer at the heart of your organisation, of getting close to the customer or any other similarly clever sort of phrase. 

It is one of those things we accept as being rather important and the sort of thing that is just the way businesses have to be these days.  Or do we really?

I was reminded by a tweet earlier today that as people get promoted in organisations they usually get moved further away from their customers, and thus have a lower chance of understanding their customers at first-hand.

It has been said that marketing is too important to be left solely to the marketing department.  I’d suggest the same was true about insight or market research.  Not only that, but it is too important to be seen as it is in many organisations as a ‘nice to have’ or just a cost to the business. 

I once knew of a business where conducting some research to understand how your customers perceived your service was seen as a little vanity project for the marketing team.  But they weren’t doing it because they hoped to get a free lunch from the research agency; they were doing it to give some hard facts and figures to the business and to support a corporate tag line that was about being the best.  As soon as things got tough for that business they took a knife to the research budget and they had no empirical data to back up any claims.  The senior management team saw market research as a ‘nice to have’ and not as a ‘need to have’.  To them it was really a cost and not an asset.  Sound familiar?

They had not made the connection that by cutting back on research they were getting further away from understanding their customers despite the fact that they would still have chanted in unison in any strategic workshop session the mantra ‘we need to get closer to our customers’.

In the current climate it seems that saying it and actually doing it may be harder than ever. The research budget does appear to be back on the chopping block.  Ever the easy thing to remove, I’m sure many a conversation has been had along the lines of “why conduct research every year when every other year will probably do?” 

Ironically in these times when trends move ever faster and fashions change ever quicker is it not more important than ever to understand how your market, your sector, your competition or your consumers’ needs are changing?  Arguably the demand should be for more insight, not less, for increasing budgets not cutting them.

So next time you hear someone trotting out those phrases about understanding the customer, find out what they have actually done about it.  Have they really seen insight as an asset to their business or did they really just see it as a ‘nice to have’ that quite frankly they just don’t really see the value of.

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