Customer orientation – one of those things everybody says they are, but are they actually?

Julkaistu 14.11.2017.

Photo by Pete Wright on Unsplash.

As a doctoral student in marketing, I would like to talk a little bit about being customer orientated. Something that quite often pops up when talking to companies about customer orientation is that they tell you about how they have mapped their typical customer and how they now “do marketing” in order to reach that customer.

To begin with, it is important to make it clear that marketing is not the same as marketing communication, but marketing communication is a part of marketing. To quickly demonstrate this I will share with you American Marketing Association’s definition on marketing from 2013:

Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” (AMA, 2013)

Well, as you see, it is not merely about communicating. Marketing is thus often viewed from a tactical point of view and it is often forgotten that marketing has a strategic and a cultural dimension too. True marketing, and thus customer, orientation means therefore that the logic and thinking in an organization is entirely that of marketing. Everything beginning from the corporate strategy all the way, to how specific tasks are done is then built around this central thought of marketing. Doing this, you can say that you are doing marketing.

Back to the segmentation issue I mentioned in the beginning. Segmentation is of course a strategic issue and it is great that there are companies who find it important to think about their customer. So, what is the problem here then? Let us think about how the segmentation and profiling of a “typical and generic customer” looks like. An example could be that it is a 20 year-old male, who comes from Finland and has an income of approximately 40 000 € per year. Perhaps there are some more specific things mentioned and of course the numbers and other info varies, but the point I would want to raise is the problem with segmenting customers like this. This is in fact how we are taught to do, but do people actually buy products and services because they are 20 years old and earn 3 333,3333333…€ per month?

Well, I think most of you agree that the answer is no. If this then is not being customer oriented, what is it then? A differing view takes us away from the profiling the customer into focusing on the customers’ processes instead. Think about when you buy a chocolate bar. The reason for doing so is not that you are of a certain age, but instead it is might be that you are hungry and that you want to have a quick snack. Alternatively, maybe you buy and eat it because you think it gives you a nice kick of energy. Get the idea? Yes, you buy products and services for the consequences that emerge when you use them. If we think of people as goal-driven, we can argue that people are continuously involved in different processes and use products and services in order to get these processes done. Thinking this way, it becomes vital for managers to understand what the customers are trying to get done, meaning that focus shifts from the customer to its processes instead.

So, why am I telling you about this? I want to point out here that there is a difference between saying that you are customer oriented and actually being that. Marketing is often seen from the tactical and functional point of view, often shedding light on merely marketing communication and perhaps marketing research. Following that, focus is put on trying to picture the generalized customer and the message that s/he needs to hear. I am not saying that we do not need marketing communication and that it would not be important, but what is see as a problem is the fact that it is the only thing that marketing is seen as.

Being truly customer oriented means that we put the customers’ processes in the center and build up the business around that. This means that we try to understand why customers do certain things and how we can assist them in their processes. It is also important to understand that companies do not deliver value through their output, but that the customer subjectively experiences value in her/his processes. Thus, focus is shifted from the customer towards the processes that the customers are occupied with. When talking about innovation and business development, one can often hear that companies have asked their customers what they want. Fair enough, it shows that you are interested in your customers and it might offer a good base for coming up with new ideas, but is the information always that relevant for you and can the customer really tell you what he or she wants? As Henry Ford said, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. In a time when big data dominates, it is important to remember that it only tells you what customers do and how they do it. This are naturally good things to know, and I am not saying that huge datasets cannot be of any use. However, the question, that in my opinion is the most important, is still unanswered.

You guessed right, it is why customers do what and how they do? Therefore, it can be argued that the question in fact becomes about understanding the customers’ processes and offering solutions that fit them. We have a lot to learn in Finland when it comes to this, and when wondering about how we can get this country back on its feet, perhaps it would be time to actually become customer (process) oriented.

Lauri Laaksonen,
Doctoral Student,
Department of Marketing

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