What causes customers to flock to one brand while remaining coldly indifferent to another—even when the offerings of the companies in question aren't substantially different?

Years of research have revealed that the single most important factor that separates the good companies from the great companies—Adidas from Nike, Kawasaki from Harley-Davidson, Hewlett-Packard from Apple—is the ability to listen to their customers. That's the starting point.

Dominant organizations, we've learned, are those that can discern meaning from the information given. In other words, they're doing more than listening. They're hearing. And they're deriving their direction from what they hear.

How, exactly, does such effective listening work?
It's not an intuitive process. We have no automatic structure inside our collective psyche that allows us to deeply, effortlessly, and effectively understand each other. We have to work at understanding.

Luckily for us, generations of great thinkers, philosophers, and researchers have delved deeply into the nuances of human nature. You've heard of a lot of these people. Maslow, Jung, and Campbell are familiar names for any student of the psyche. By taking an integrative approach and drawing from and combining these insights, we can equip ourselves to listen to our customers.

Step 1: Understand the Unconscious

Understanding that the vast majority of human experience, communication, and thought take place on an unconscious level is the first step in listening to the customer. Even though we may not be aware we're doing so, we're continually taking note of the environment around us—how people interact within that environment, and what role we play as individuals.

That information has a profound role in guiding consumer behavior. Begin by realizing truly effective communication means being able to listen on multiple levels—to what is said and what is left unsaid.

Step 2: Harness Humanistic Drivers

As human beings, we come with certain needs and compulsions hard-wired into our psyche. Those needs and compulsions are called humanistic drivers, which act as motivators to ensure not merely survival but high-quality survival, rich with enjoyable, fulfilling experiences,

Those drivers are generally viewed in a hierarchal structure, with the most universal needs at the bottom and more refined needs at higher levels. We begin with basic survival needs and move up to aesthetic and transcendence needs.

To listen to your customer, you need to understand which humanistic drivers are at play in their lives when they engage with you. Only by satisfying those needs will you attract and retain customers.

Step 3: Access Archetypal Images

A single image is worth a thousand words for a simple reason: The unconscious mind does not bother with language. Symbols, pictures, and iconography speak directly to your customer's psyche, bypassing and transcending all other forms of communication to take on the leading role in influencing your customer.

Listening, then, also means understanding which archetypal images resonate most with your customers and are the most relevant to them.

Step 4: Check Cultural Narratives

We live in a world made of stories. Every day, our customers are exposed to stories—narratives—that tell them everything they need to know about who they are, who their friends and neighbors are, and the goals they need to accomplish in the course of their lives if they are to be happy, fulfilled people. These stories vary wildly depending on the culture and socioeconomic niches our customers occupy.

If we have a story called "Good Mom," for example, the single Hispanic mom in Houston is hearing a version different from the wealthy mom in Westchester.

Listening to your customers means identifying the cultural narratives most relevant to your customer base so that you can craft messaging they're predisposed to hear.

Step 5: Aggregate and Align

Preparing ourselves to listen deeply and intently to our customers allows us to learn an awful lot about them. Aggregating all of the insights gathered—a process my company calls "brand modeling"—allows an organization to project, with a high degree of certainty, how customers will respond to changes in marketing or operations before those changes are made.

Bringing organizational performance into alignment with customer expectation is the essential step in achieving market dominance. The better we know our customers, the more equipped we are to listen to them. The better we listen, the easier it is to serve our customers' wants and needs efficiently and effectively—often before our customers know what they want or need.

And that's what dominant organizations are able to do—because they put their customers first.

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Bolivar J. Bueno is founder and managing partner of The Cult Branding Company, a brand modeling and consumer insight research firm. He is also the author of Customers First: Dominate Your Market by Winning Them Over Where It Counts the Most.