Marketers need to put customer-centricity back on top

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The following is a write-up of a webinar that Tom hosted and that you can watch here

In recent years, customer experience has been deprioritised in favour of the bottom line. But it’s time for businesses to sit up and take notice of the value of putting your customers front and centre.

In any downturn or economic crises, productivity and profitability inevitably rise to the top of the C-suite agenda – often at the expense of the marketing department. This results in things like customer experience getting kicked down the road to be reviewed when macro conditions get back on track.

An IBM and Oxford Economics survey of 3,000 CEOs last summer showed that customer experience had fallen to third in the list of priorities for business leaders, despite having taken the top spot the year before. It was replaced by productivity and profitability, and tech modernisation. Customer relationships, which were ranked as the fourth highest priority in 2022, didn’t even make the top list in the latest survey.

The result? Customers feel less valued, as departments are pressured to hit numbers, save costs, and improve efficiency – all at the expense of the customer experience.

CX has “definitely taken a hit over the past few years”, according to Benedict Buckland, managing director and chief strategy officer at alan. agency, the full-service B2B marketing agency. “I think there is always that pressure to just invest in activation, where you’ve got to try and get results in the short term,” he says.

One theory behind this recent shift is that CX, rather than being ignored altogether, has instead become a “team sport”. With multiple departments or initiatives all contributing to CX in some way, it’s no longer a standalone strategic objective for business leaders, but a holistic approach that the whole organisation should be driving.

“Rather than previously being quite siloed, [CX] is now something that marketing really gets involved in, and that sales get involved in as well,” says Anna Tankel, freelance growth expert and former senior growth manager at Onsi, the employee benefits platform. “For us, events were things we only used to do for prospects, but they’re now something that it’s quite easy to invite customers to as well.”

Marketing’s evolving role

From an agency perspective, Buckland identifies a recent “correction” in how companies are now viewing the importance of CX. “Over the past six months, there’s been a big increase in clients wanting to evaluate how they are doing things and realising that there’s actually more of a fundamental problem because they don’t have the necessary market orientation. They don’t understand the customer.”

These days, Buckland says that his agency is now doing more work than ever to help brands better understand or re-learn “who their clients and customers are, what their particular drivers are, and using that to actually reshape the proposition”.

But marketing isn’t just responsible for onboarding new customers or building brand awareness. It plays a crucial role at every stage of the customer journey, from initial calls to upsells, aftersales and improving loyalty.

According to Maisie Richardson, UK marketing director at spend management software provider Payhawk, customer obsession is all about mapping out all your customer touchpoints from start to finish, “and then allowing the business as a whole to identify areas for improvement and ensuring we’re all focusing on the same thing across all those different business areas”.

Reframing marketing’s role can be helpful for companies to realise how vital CX is, says Buckland, who calls for marketing to be reconceptualised as “the voice of the customer”. He says: “Brand is every touchpoint, every point of interaction with your customer, your prospect, your client. Whether that’s pre-sale, during the sales process, post-sale or as part of just service more generally. I think marketing does need to have a much wider jurisdiction to cover all of that CX dimension.”

In a similar vein, Richardson makes it her mission to listen to every point of contact with customers – everything from the first call with a business development representative to final closing calls. “The reason we listened to those types of recordings is purely to hear from the customer directly what they want from us. […] It’s our job as marketers to translate that to the rest of the organisation. And if we don’t do a good enough job of that, we’re going to fail as a business.”

Knowing your customers better

At the end of the day, don’t take your customers for granted, says Tankel. “Budgets are being cut left, right and centre. And the ROI of rolling out the red carpet for customers is always going to be stronger than for prospects. So don’t forget to invest in them,” she says.

For companies out there with a disconnect between how they’re selling and what their audience really wants, Buckland recommends thinking beyond simply what customers’ “rational needs” are.

“If you go beyond the rational, you understand the emotional drivers. But don’t just stop there […] Something that we’ve explored is this extra dimension of understanding on a philosophical level – what motivates and drives our customers and clients and how they see the world.”

He explains: “There’s an additional layer to understand what they see on a philosophical level, their role within an organisation and how they see their organisation’s role in a wider market. If you can start to tap into that, it’s really insightful for developing a brand proposition and wider storytelling.”

Creativity in the AI age

When it comes to speaking to your audience and making yourself heard, the rise of AI and machine-learning tools has helped companies create more content than ever before. But with so much noise in the marketplace, being heard is getting harder than ever.

Tankel highlights the risk of getting a “middle-of-the-road, boring, templated response” if you’re not using the tools in an innovative way. “You can challenge many of the tools you’re using to spin up something a bit more contrarian. […] But they’re never going to give you enough to cut through unless you really push them and add in your own spin,” she says.

Buckland calls these tools both an “inhibitor and enabler, simultaneously”, but a reality that the marketing world must lean into. “For us, it’s a real accelerator of initial ideas,” he says. “In terms of how we use [AI] within the creative process, it’s to accelerate that research and discovery phase. And it’s quite useful just being able to uncover a couple of blind spots that you have as a human being […] But certainly once you have those baseline ideas, it’s the requirement of a human being to synthesise that out.”

Within thought leadership, for example, generative AI tools are already being used to write Linkedin posts, tweets and even speeches. But we risk homogenising written content through the over-use of these tools, says Buckland.

“It is incumbent on marketers to think, ‘Okay, what are the other formats that I can use? What are the other ways in which I can communicate this idea or lead a conversation within my industry?’,” he says. “Yes, [AI] is going to be super disruptive for copywriters. But does it sort of sound the death knell for marketers? Absolutely not. I think that it will create that necessity, which causes innovation in different formats, different ways.”

However, being creative requires fostering a culture of creativity within marketing teams, according to Richardson. That comes, she says, by allowing time for free thinking “without that immediate pressure to ship campaigns as quickly as possible”.

She continues: “One of the things about being creative is actually taking risks that sometimes don’t always pay off. That’s one of the key areas where I think we’ll always need that sort of freedom of thought.

“We try very, very hard to not be the type of marketing team that is focused on bottom-line results in every campaign. We focus on creativity. We might not get it right 100% of the time, but actually that’s what’s important to us.”

Watch the full webinar here, check out how we helped Klear boost their brand, or reach out to discuss how Raconteur can support your brand building efforts here.