Is yours a customer-centric company? The CMO Council and SAP recently posed that question to more than 300 senior marketing executives of major corporations. Not surprisingly, 73% of respondents said customer centricity is critical to the success of the business and to their own roles.

Sadly, and equally predictable, was that only 14% said customer centricity is a hallmark of their company, and only 11% said they believe that their customers would agree with that characterization.

In short, the study results echoed those of several major studies in the past few years, which is that most companies claiming to be "customer-centric" aren't.

Peter Drucker famously noted that "the point of a business is to create a customer." That language—"create a customer"—might lead to considering customers as inanimate objects or things. But they aren't vessels serving only as passive repositories for whatever companies want to stuff into them. Customers are active agents in a dynamic business ecosystem.

That's why the new business imperative is to partner with them throughout the product and service lifecycle (not just at the end of it) collaborating with them to co-create, refine, and launch high-impact products and solutions.

But rather than being recognized as the raison d'être of a business, the consumer is too often consigned to a single department—market research—which primarily validates what the company already thinks it knows. And such confinement of consumer insight into a virtual ghetto serves as a drag on growth, hindering businesses from acquiring, delighting, and retaining consumers.

Ironically, it's the specialists typically tasked with representing the consumer's voice—market research and consumer insights groups—who contribute to a consumer-sampled rather than consumer-infused business culture. Some of the problem lies in their own reliance on methods and dogma that are no longer sustainable, but more of it lies in the conventional corporate view of customers as respondents or consumers—not partners.

But companies infused with the voice of the customer—those that systematically design the customer into the company across all functions and divisions, at every phase of the product or service lifecycle—are more agile, responsive, and able to deliver greater shareholder value over the long run.

So how do you do that? By recognizing that consumers can (and should) be active collaborators with every facet of your brand, and then acting on it.

Here are five concrete measures that corporate leadership can take to integrate the consumer into the company.

1. Start with insights, but don't stop there

Even if your consumer insights team has identified an opportunity for innovation, the consumer voice all too often ends there, or it's re-enlisted only at the end of the process, when you're ready to test or validate. Instead...

2. Create common purpose among all stakeholders

Which is what GE does. GE's chief marketing officer, Beth Comstock, systematically bridges the engineering lab with the real world "lab" of homes, airports, factories, and hospitals through an initiative called "market back."

The success of the initiative hinges on several key factors:

  • Developing understanding through immersion and consumer dialogue
  • Designing solutions for and in partnership with all stakeholders and from the ground up in local markets (rather than being pushed down from headquarters)
  • Rapidly implementing by quickly rolling out and testing solutions
  • Iterating, using immediate customer feedback

"Global perception and expectation of innovation is changing, and businesses would be short-sighted not to change with it," Comstock says. "And that means looking at innovation in both the science lab and the 'real world' lab."

So how do you do that? Mandate that every department—from R&D to Manufacturing, from Finance to Marketing—engage customers through live workshops, online communities, virtual collaboration platforms, webcam streams showing in-moment usage, and other interpersonal methods.

It's too easy to dismiss concerns, or cite "user error," when the people to whom everyone in your company owes their jobs (i.e., customers) become abstract data points on a page. But it's mortifying and humbling to witness first-hand those same people struggle with your less-than-optimal package design... or inspiring when customers generate an idea that would materially improve your product or they demonstrate through the smiles on their faces how it improves their lives.

3. Ask whether you know your customers as well as you know your numbers

Before automatically answering "yes," do a little experiment. Ask yourself who speaks for the consumer in your organization? Is it Consumer Insights? Market Research? Data Analytics? Social Marketing? Or is it actual customers? Are there pictures of real customers (not models from stock photographs) adorning your desk and office walls? And how many actual customers' names do you know?

Although it's impossible to have a personal relationship with all of your customers, it's entirely possible (and necessary) to forge relationships with some of them. Relationship—not data points—nurtures intuition. And in a business climate as dynamic as the current one, corporate leadership must be able to act quickly, informed as much by sound intuition as sound research.

4. Remember that numbers don't speak for themselves, and data alone doesn't move people

If you want your consumer insights team to make bold recommendations and stop inundating you with endless charts, tables, and data points, then don't focus on their methods over their message, and don't demand statistical significance when it really doesn't matter.

That's not to say there's no longer any place for traditional research rigor. But there's a difference between "market research"—the attempt to construct optimal feature sets, forecast sales volume, and use other meaningfully quantified data to measure markets—and consumer collaboration, which is an ongoing process of engaging the actual human beings who are your customers in solving actual problems.

Yes, a graph showing that 76% of respondents found Concept X "somewhat or very consistent" with your brand may be interesting as you think about potential market share. But if you want to understand and act on the emotion that drives mind share, more compelling would be video diaries from real people making real choices between your brand and your competitors', or trying your product prototypes at home, or marking up your ideas with comments and suggestions.

5. Synthesize and interpret, don't just accrue

Executives often find themselves in the peculiar position of being overwhelmed by data—but lacking actionable knowledge. In part, that's because there's an emerging counterpoint to the overly centralized consumer insights or consumer relationship function, and that's the decentralized one.

In a growing number of companies, the problem is not that one department has exclusive "ownership" of the customer voice but that everyone—the CRM team, the social or digital marketing team, the customer support team, the data analytics team—does. Everyone is hearing and reacting to different voices in different ways.

The solution is not to tighten the reins but to build cross-functional accountability for synthesizing what's being heard.

* * *

Let's end where we started: Creating customers every day is not only essential to growth but also the reason companies exist in the first place.

But in this emerging sharing economy—modeled on the notion of collaborative creation and consumption—you can't effectively create customers without a deep, empathetic, and evolving understanding of their aspirations, challenges, and needs.

Companies can't serve customers without active, ongoing collaboration in developing and refining products, services, messaging, distribution, and the overall customer experience.

And to achieve that, leaders must ensure that the customer voice is explicitly designed into every corporate function.

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Stop Isolating Customer Insights: Five Ways to Design the Customer Into Your Company

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image of Julie Wittes Schlack

Julie Wittes Schlack is a founding member and the SVP of innovation and design of online-community-based consultancy C Space. A recipient of the Hopwood Award for fiction, she has been widely published in obscure literary journals. She reviews books for the Boston Globe.

LinkedIn: Julie Schlack

Twitter: @jwschlack