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This is the third in a series of article on voice of the customer (VOC). The first is "How Voice of the Customer Got Its Groove Back (and How to Stay in Tune)"; the second is "Making Marketing a Relevant VOC Leader."

It may be bold. It may be controversial. But I'm convinced the following will prove true: Without customer-centricity, or a role in gathering and interpreting the voice of the customer, Marketing will become nothing more than the execution arm of companies.

I see signs of this everywhere. If you're on a functional fault-line, you've probably noticed the signs as well: shrinking budgets, constant shuffling of programs, discontented sales constituents, and results that require increasingly more money and effort to sustain. Not only that, but your last few CMOs have operated differently. And the scrutiny you're under has grown steadily more intense.

So you have two choices—one of which is a grand opportunity: change, or remain the same. The obvious, and best, response to the shifting plates is to shift with them... to embrace the opportunity for change.

But note that this is a perishable opportunity; it won't last long. CEOs view the lack of meaningful and actionable customer intelligence and productive systems for capturing and responding to customer issues as a top-three challenge. CFOs want to understand why the churn rate is so high and affecting revenue growth and cash flow. Services can't figure out why a certain group is always unhappy. Engineering can't build a better product.

Guess what? These issues are not only affecting the efficacy of critical teams within your company, they're also impacting the very metrics that line your CEO's scorecard—sales cycle times, conversion rates, market penetration, and share of wallet, among others. What's going to happen very soon is that CEOs, desperate to better understand the customer landscape and how to use it to make smarter decisions, will figure out—with or without marketing—that what's missing is voice of the customer (VOC).

You're in the right place to provide it. You're there at just the right time. And if you don't do it—if you don't see to it that marketing is the driving force of VOC within your company—if you don't transform marketing into a microcosm of what a customer-centric organization looks like—then you'll soon find yourself handling increasingly more tactical initiatives launched by whichever groups do wind up driving voice of the customer at your company.

That's the bad news. The good news is that you're well placed to do something about it.

My previous article, "Making Marketing a Relevant VOC Leader," supported the premise that marketing is the ideal owner of VOC. In it, I discussed...

  • What really defines a customer-led company

  • The number-one thing marketing needs to impact if it wants anything to do with becoming a customer-led company

  • Three key recommendations to get you moving in that direction

This article and the next focus squarely on the how: How you, as a marketer, can make marketing a relevant VOC leader.

Various approaches work for various types of marketing organizations. I'm going to focus on two here that will work no matter which type yours is: customer-centric marketing leadership by example; and leadership through influence and intervention. In the latter, you directly take on the role of VOC leader in your company or line of business; in the former, as I discuss in this article, you lead your marketing group as you would a customer-centric company.

That said, it's important to realize that you just can't pick up the VOC role and run with it. For one, no one's prepared to give it to you. For two, you really aren't prepared to run with it! But you can get prepared to lead by example as your organization's VOC driving-force by (1) becoming fluent in the new logic and (2) redesigning your playground.

A new logic for marketing: destination results... or bust

What is a customer-centric marketing organization anyway? One Forrester analyst defined it as "a marketing structure in which customer alignment is the primary organizing structure, with other groups, such as IT, channel groups, and product heads, supporting the cause."

Although I like this definition, I prefer to characterize a customer-centric or customer-led organization in terms of the logic it uses to make decisions, and the things it does not do.

Here's a simple example. For the past five years, most CEOs and chief sales people have been focused on deepening installed-base relationships, increasing share of wallet, and creating barriers to exit for customers. Yet every spend report clearly shows that most marketers are directing their precious resources on programs that generate net-new leads for an already stressed sales team that desperately needs to strengthen its position within current accounts.

The energy that has driven companies to over-invest in public relations and branding, and to under-invest in customer intelligence, in-account marketing and sales and win-back campaigns, is what keeps marketing out of the boardroom. The logic that tells marketing to get more leads for sales when what sales needs is to keep and resell to current customers... is strangely skewed.

So now it's time for a new logic, one that looks customers—both internal and external—squarely in the eye and says, "What can we do to help you buy and refer more (or, for internal customers, to help you use our services more and succeed as you see it)?"

The old marketing logic focuses on tasks and project management; it wants to know, "How do I get as much done as possible in as little time as possible and as effectively as possible?" It's the difference between using buckshot and a laser. Using buckshot is like saying, "I'm going to succeed because of how productive I am and how efficient I am at getting it done." Using a laser, on the other hand, is like saying, "How do I understand marketing's customers so well that I can do as little as possible to get the largest and most positive impact possible?"

Using the new logic, you question the realities of customers and stakeholders; you constantly seek to capture the pulse of the customer to understand what has changed and how and where customers have moved.

Results are key—not praise. At the end of many a marketing event marketers will say, "Tell us how you liked it." Then they send the please-pat-me-on-the-back email: "Sales loved our event! Read these quotes!" As a marketer fluent in the new logic, however, you will forgo the praise and seek to tie everything back to whether sales is selling faster as a result of what you did.

A new playground for marketing: in tune with the times

Adapting the new logic will provide marketing with a defensible, control position. It will also enable your team to master its domain—to spend money more wisely, manage stakeholder expectations more effectively, and drive up satisfaction significantly. And it will give you and your team a clear set of requirements, priorities, and points for your road map. Despite that, however, adapting a new logic alone will not be enough.

Between the time I wrote this and the previous article, I looked at over 100 marketing job descriptions to better understand whether companies are seeking new marketers with the ability to lead in the new playground. Sadly, they really haven't changed over the last 10 years. Even more sadly, today's marketers aren't stocking their teams with mid-level and front-line talent who can tackle the needs of the new CMO or of a unique battleground.

The people marketers are looking to hire aren't even expected to bring with them the tool-chest necessary to be successful in these new times. Few positions listed Six-Sigma or voice-of-customer expertise as a criterion; almost none showed preference for folks experienced with core customer systems (SFA, CRM, etc.).

What happened is that time marched on, yet many marketing teams stood still. Those teams remain standing today, waiting to complete yet another project or initiative and so add another "hit" to their belt.

In contrast, customer-centric marketing organizations experienced evolution and growth as the needs of its marketplace changed and grew; and they continue to do so today. The playground of the new marketing organization now stretches to include direct customers, revenue enablers (sales teams, channel partners, OEM's), and internal "customers" or stakeholders as well.

The playground has also become more advanced; it is stocked with formal processes and models and tools and technologies for capturing and analyzing information and for moving it from here to there.

A new era for marketing: five essentials to usher it in

Most marketing organizations are stymied not because they're run by the wrong people but because marketing has yet to adapt the new logic. It has yet to arm its team with the skill sets required by these changing times, and to build the tools and systems with which to gather and leverage "customer" insight.

If you and your team plan to lead change and be a VOC leader, you must adapt the new logic, develop or hire the skill sets, and build the systems—and you must shepherd in a new level of VOC impact across the company. The following five essentials will see you well on your way:

  1. Create the internal systems (processes and technology) that allow you and your team to effectively capture the voice of its customers and constituents. What does Sales need? How is the channel behaving—what are they selling and what are they not selling? If you run a product marketing organization, what marketplace challenges are your business-unit heads facing? Regularly capture and help teams act on this information to become a beacon of voice of the customer in your company.

  2. Build your strategy and measure your team's results in how well marketing serves its customers. Today, most executives' incentives are tied to a customer-specific metric, whether the Net Promoter score at companies like TiVO and Intuit, or customer service, satisfaction, and loyalty rubrics at hundreds of other firms. From a marketing perspective, you need one, or two. First, you need a set of metrics that assess how well you're enabling your internal stakeholders and customers—how well you're helping sales to close deals faster, the channel to more effectively internalize and articulate your unique value proposition, engineering to best understand and act on market and customer requirements, and so on. Second is the degree to which your macro-efforts are driving customer preference, repurchase, and share of customer or wallet. Measure, and report on, how your efforts impact what's important to individual stakeholder groups; before long, they'll be looking at marketing a little bit—perhaps a lot—differently.

  3. Allow room for transformation and translation by in-sourcing the thinking and out-sourcing the tactics. Most marketing teams are all work and no play, with no time to consider or translate the results the organization is getting with its investments. Hire the right people (former customer loyalty gurus and sales people, GMs, and former entrepreneurs) who've been successful because they've stayed connected. Take every opportunity to sniff out what's happening in the playground at-large.

  4. Question internal assumptions about THE customer. Everyone talks about who the customer is or where the power-base is in your company's accounts. Sometimes those assessments come from solid sources; others are hyperbole. You've heard: "We've got to be selling to the C-suite"; yeah, you and everyone else. You've also heard: "The VP of sales is our decision-maker"; yet is it really possible that most industries, most companies, most teams make decisions in the same way? A customer-centric marketing organization not only questions the assumptions made by the company but also desperately needs those assumptions to build an effective strategy and game plan—not to mention a customer-centric marketing organization and future VOC leader.

  5. Stay in touch by capturing the 360-degree view. We recently conducted, alongside MarketingProfs, a voice of customer research study of 1,240 marketers. What did we learn? First, in most organizations, VOC activities lack a real owner and are ad hoc in nature. Second, very few respondents perceive their organizations to be effective at collecting, interpreting, or managing customer insight. Yes, this void paints an opportune picture for marketing to demonstrate leadership, but it's also a prelude to possible risks. Stay in touch with how your organization is planning, capturing, and acting on voice of the customer, and who needs it. A 360-view includes not only the customer but also the people, strategies, and decisions reliant on customer insight.

If you've suddenly gotten nervous thinking about constant change, let me clarify that much of what it takes to deal with change can be built into predictable models, which then need only periodic fine-tuning. What you need to do is to eliminate the generic, patterned marketing scheme of yesterday and intentionally set out to continually assess the context of your domain.

When you make changes like this—when marketing becomes a microcosm of what a customer-centric company should look like—you'll be noticed. And once marketing becomes that respected beacon, your group will be not only more successful but also in a position to run with the role of VOC leader across the company.

And you won't have to chase down that role—they'll be running to give it to you!

Continue reading "By Example—How Marketing Paves the Way to VOC Leadership" ... Read the full article

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Promise Phelon is president and CEO of UpMo and founder of the Phelon Group.

Twitter: @PromisePhelon

LinkedIn: Promise Phelon