Getting to know your customer

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Melissa Crowe
Melissa Crowe
When I first entered marketing, one of the things that appealed to me was gaining a better understanding of the customer and, in turn, making products interesting to the consumer and increasing revenue for my company or clients. Many times, marketers build their ads and other creative materials based on gut feelings or research, such as focus groups or surveys. This approach can be highly successful but can also often lead to companies losing direct touch with their customers.

Many products have obvious applications. For instance, Nintendo's Wii is one of the hottest video game consoles on the market now. It's easy to see that the gaming system would be used to play games by a variety of age groups, but who would have guessed that it would be used for types of physical therapy and as a source of exercise in retirement homes? Chances are that Nintendo's marketing team did not have this in mind in its initial plans, but its new commercials show several generations playing the system.

The lesson is that customers may use your products or services in many ways. Your company could invest a lot of money on researching how the product is used, but may not nail down an opportunity that could reap large benefits. The question is, how can you get to know your customer directly without expending resources?

My company was faced with this exact dilemma. Instead of doing a large-scale research project to learn about our customers, we decided to go back to one of the earliest forms of learning and research — listening. It may sound like an obvious solution, but our management team implemented a program that provided all employees the opportunity to field customer service calls routed from our call center.

The company knew that calls were often from customers who had problems with their orders or needed help using our site. We were often dealing with customers who may have been frustrated heading into the calls. At a glance, it may seem like call-center specialists who are trained to deal with conflict resolution should handle these problems; but we saw this as an opportunity to really get to know our customers. Their problems were varied, but it was often quite easy to correct the issues and get them a new order in a matter of minutes.

A common theme among the callers was that they were always happy to speak about their businesses and how they were going to use our products. Much like a customer commenting on things that we do well, or what they were doing with the products, they were just as quick to let us know where we needed improvement. These issues ranged from site and upload issues to products that they'd like us to offer and designs that they'd like to see.

This feedback gave us great insight into how our customers view our products and, in turn, ways to improve our site, products and services. By being passionate on both sides of the spectrum, it gave us a chance to evaluate what we're doing both positively and negatively. This program is a viable example for a company looking to truly learn from its customers.

Melissa Crowe is VP of marketing services at VistaPrint.

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