thinking like a customer

thinking like a customer

Three Levels of Customer Purpose

By on January 6, 2010

Thus, the task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees. --Arthur Schopenhauer.

Too often, in our businesses, we lapse into cruise control. We get away from the core value of being customer-centered and what was once our purpose loses its vibrancy. There are three levels of purpose that define how we relate to customers. Freshness and growth, however, happen only at the second and third levels.

Decisions_medLevel 1 is the basic, transactional level. It is necessary, of course, for survival, but not sufficient for growth. Think of it as embodying what Ted Levitt wrote almost 50 years ago, that the “purpose (of a business) is to get and keep a customer.” (Marketing Imagination). In fairness, at the time that he put forth that concept, most executives would have answered that the purpose was “to make a profit.” Level 1 represents what happens when an employee delivers “good service” (friendly, helpful, etc.) in a typical buyer-seller event. But, if we are not mindful, it’s too easy to become immune to our experiences and fall into a rut, believing this is all we need to accomplish.

Level 2 is embodied by a “solutions” approach. This is how Levitt described it in his HBR article "Marketing Myopia": “Customers don’t want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Activities at this stage are operational and enhance our purpose well beyond the actions of pleasant employees offering an expected level of service. It is more customer-centered because it causes us to define the corporate purpose in terms of value to the customer rather than the product we currently sell. It is much better because it involves evaluating every touch-point in our processes to look for improvements that the customer will notice and appreciate.

Level 3 is transformational. At this stage, organizations have created a system that hones their capability to develop complete attentiveness to the customer. It provides a way for truth to emerge. It is based on design thinking, which makes us attentive, like a good designer and helps us “discard pre-existing ideas.” (Milton Glaser, Drawing is Thinking) It will help us to connect seemingly unrelated ideas or processes. As in design, we become deeply aware, or conscious of, what we are looking at only through the mechanism of trying to “draw it.” Ambiguity in business disappears because it clears the mind of all the clutter and lets us focus on what the customer will value. It is the nexus that positions customers at the center of a situation or process and connects them with our business as a whole.

This culture of “thinking what no one has thought about what everybody sees” is the essence of Level 3 behavior and will lead organizations to rise above the complacency with their everyday experiences. It is strategic, because working at this stage, as Glaser says, “moves the mind” to structure a new reality for customers. Level 3 attentiveness to the customer, like design, contains “the energy of its maker.” It generates success because it is grounded in the philosophy that the customer completes the work we are doing. Naturally, when organizations navigate to this way of thinking, they heighten customer loyalty because this approach differentiates them in the eyes of their customers.

The activities and thinking that take place at Level 3 create a new type of passion that radiates customer-centricity. The drive to Level 3 is the most purposeful goal of any organization. In design, Glaser says, “The task is to understand what we are looking at” and the same techniques apply to help us view our businesses in the context of what the customer is thinking. Level 3 frees up learning through movement and experience to generate a fresh, attentive view of how our products and services impact our customers. The result is a wholeness that the customer experiences and values.


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