Customer satisfaction - who exactly is the customer?

We all know customer satisfaction is important, for internal customers as well as corporate clients. But in the dash to set about satisfying customer needs, there is a point that may get overlooked: who exactly is the customer you need to be impressing?

Traditionally the customer was considered to be the individual with the term ‘purchasing’ somewhere in his job title. However, it has long been recognized that organizational buying is a process involving several individuals. A much referenced paper from the 1970’s by Webster & Wind (Webster Frederick E. Jr. and Yoram Wind, “A General Model for Understanding Organizational Buying Behavior”) focuses attention on the buying centre: “those individuals and groups who participate in the purchasing decision-making process”.

The problem with the ‘buying centre’ is that it doesn’t necessarily include a key customer – the end user. The end user may not have direct involvement in the decision to buy from one vendor or another, but he/she potentially has significant influence. Consider a processed food manufacturer. The decision of which packaging supplier to use will be driven by senior managers in marketing, operations, finance and the MD. The guy in the warehouse who has to deal with the packaging deliveries coming in on the lorries won’t be involved in the decision. But he does have indirect influence. Issues and grumbles about late loads, early deliveries, incomplete loads or loads stacked in the wrong order will filter through to the factory manager and thus on to the ‘buying centre’, impacting future buying decisions. So, who is ‘marking’ the guy in the warehouse to check that he’s happy? To achieve our objective for customer satisfaction, we need a wider definition of who the customer is.

An excellent book, “Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service” by Ken Blanchard has this definition of the customer: “everyone touched by the product or service”. This acknowledges that every employee involved with the product and the process of dealing with the vendor, from the warehouse through the accounts department to the managing director, should be on our list of “customers”. The buyer-seller relationship goes beyond the interaction between the salesperson and the purchasing agent. By implication, the opportunities to influence customer satisfaction involve a wide range of employees in the customer’s organisation, and a correspondingly wide range of employees in the vendor’s organisation – wherever the two organisations interact.

“Customer satisfaction” will depend on what is important to each ‘customer’. Achieving customer satisfaction therefore requires a good understanding of the individuals involved, their issues, prejudices, job requirements and goals, what it would take to create ‘Wow!” experiences. And of course the customer is continuously changing – people leave or move jobs. A customer satisfaction strategy needs to be flexible and continuously reviewed, requiring good, cross-functional, internal sharing and collaboration. This is beginning to feel like we’re trying to hit a continually shifting target. In this situation, information is king, and your best sources of information are the people at the coal-face by which I mean not only your employees, but also partners, associates and suppliers who are interacting with customers on your behalf. They understand how the customer’s business operates, who the individuals are, their day to day needs and gripes, and they probably know the customer’s perceptions of your competitors.

So the challenge is how to create a customer satisfaction strategy that addresses everything that you do for the client organisation, enabling your team (internal and external) to be responsive and relevant even as the client changes and evolves. Perhaps we can learn from the principles of Agile Software Development?  The concept of Agile Marketing is catching on. I would be interested to know your thoughts if you have any experience in this area. I look forward to your comments.

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Fran Bodley-Scott

Fran is a business communications consultant specialising in customer and stakeholder relationship marketing. She started out in engineering and product development before moving into marketing and business development. Fran brings a blend of marketing experience, system thinking and creative design to client projects. She is a thought leader in applying marketing thinking inside the organisation and is passionate about improving business effectiveness and efficiency through relationship marketing.

If you are interested in talking with Fran about your project, please get in touch.