Customers Come Second

You could spend the rest of your life reading and not get through half of the books ever written on the topic about how marketers, and companies more broadly, win by putting customers first.  How many times when a company relaunches a brand have you heard corporate leaders say “we started with the customer?”

Near where I live is the original Stew Leonard’s grocery store.  If you’ve never been, it has a reputation for being one of the best grocery shopping experiences in the tri-state area.  The place is awesome.  When you walk in the front door there’s a huge boulder with Stew’s two guiding principles etched into it (almost as if Stew came down from the mountain with them just like Moses and the Ten Commandments):

Rule 1:  The customer is always right.

Rule 2:  When in doubt, see rule #1.

Stew Leonard built a very successful business and there’s no doubt such relentless commitment to outstanding customer service is a vital part of any winning marketing strategy.

But I’d argue that the customer is not the place to start when building your marketing plan.  Great marketing starts on the inside, whether you’re operating your own one person business or working for a Fortune 500 company.

I realize such talk is borderline blasphemous for some but please let me explain.  The best marketing is honest and authentic.  To achieve that, your brand first must do the hard work of understanding who and what it is.  You, and ultimately your customers, must know where you stand otherwise you will have no real meaning.  You don’t start that process by asking others who you are.  It’s an inside job.

What is the unique contribution the brand has to offer?  How can it/you make a difference?  What role can it play improving the marketplace and the lives of those it seeks to do business with?  And for those working at big companies this is especially critical: does everyone inside the business buy into the vision of the brand?

Too often companies re-brand, launch new products or introduce new services without doing the hard work internally first.  Failure to do so means that somewhere along the way the promise your brand makes to a customer will get broken, almost always unintentionally, by a well meaning employee.  Breaking promises to customers is not part of any company’s recipe for success.

Yes, of course, part of the introspection I’m suggesting needs to take place must be grounded in an understanding of the desires and needs of your desired marketplace.  No one wins through idle navel gazing.  But if you start by thinking about logos, taglines, press releases and competitive positioning the odds of being believed by customers diminishes exponentially.

This is especially true in large companies where marketing decisions are too often made by small, cloistered groups not sufficiently in touch with the people closest to the action.  A critical part of the process is spending time with everyone involved.  All stakeholders at big companies need skin in the game.  You must develop systems and processes to make this happen.

I’ll share more thoughts on how to do this in the future.  In the meantime, I won’t stop shopping at Stew Leonard’s.  But remember, great marketing is an inside out job.  Customers come second.



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