“No company can succeed today by trying to be all things to all people. It must instead find the unique value that it alone can deliver to a chosen market.” – Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema from The Discipline of Market Leaders
The most innovative companies in the world are the ones who understand their customers better than anyone else. Because of this, they’re able to come up with solutions that may not occur to their competitors.
Any company would want to follow in their footsteps, but they're missing the point. You want to follow your customers' lead. How can you do that? The answer is customer intimacy.
Customer intimacy isn't a set of practices like customer success or user experience (UX) design. It's a measure of how well your company understands your customers at every level.
It's about providing what Treacy and Wiersema call the "best total solution", completely adapted to the needs of your customers specifically. Not adapted to what people think a company like yours "should" be doing and not chasing industry trends. You'll never get a better product-market fit than by centering your product on the customers you're already working for.
Your customer success team is keeping an eye on customer churn already, but are you implementing this as a key performance indicator (KPI) for your business? If customers are churning it might be because their situation changed. In a B2B context, this could be an internal change at your company that's simply out of your control.
Make customer churn an important quantitative metric. And for a qualitative picture of where your product or service might be letting them down, make sure you ask them either as part of the exit process or in a follow-up email from your customer success team.
Keep granular data about how, when, and how often customers are using every aspect of your business. Share that data to as many people as you can think to and consider making it a priority to increase usage.
It's a common issue in B2B SaaS. Customers buy the product then don't make enough use of it to justify renewing their subscription.
This could be for any number of reasons, but as we'll soon discover, it's the job of everybody in the company to deeply understand your customers' issues and contribute to solutions that will turn them from disinterested users into evangelists for your brand.
Go into your customer relationship management (CRM) system and pick a random customer. On a scale of 1-10, how likely are they to recommend your product or service to a friend or colleague? Ask them. Make it part of your onboarding flow and make it a priority to turn "0-6s" and "7-8s" into 10/10 satisfied customers.
Your net promoter score (NPS) is the percentage of promoters ("9-10s") minus the percentage of detractors ("0-6s"). Keep an eye on this number and never stop striving to understand what you can do for the customers who are engaged enough to tell you how they feel.
For a starting point, focus on the "7-8s" who are so close to loving your product. The more of those you can turn into promoters for your product, the better your product will become.
You can think of ways to quantify all of this into one "customer intimacy index." That’ll be unique to your business and your priorities, and you'll likely think of more inputs once you've finished reading the below.
Let's take a look at seven actionable ways you can start increasing customer intimacy.
If you go looking for the secret to Amazon’s success, you’ll find a few candidates from their internal memos, their platform, or their “working backwards” product development process. Ask anyone there and they’ll tell you about Amazon’s insistence on being the most “customer-obsessed” company in the world.
Jeff Bezos has advertised his email for years, and as CEO he would often forward customer service emails to the relevant people to make sure they were acted on swiftly.
Compare that to the Shopify ecommerce social media accounts you've seen going in circles with complaints in the replies. Considering how valuable even a minute of Bezos’ time is, why did he insist on doing the work of newly-trained customer service reps?
He understood how easy it is for people at the top of the company to lose sight of the very customers they're trying to serve. How can you know people who you never talk to? Or never hear from? Retail analytics is a great way of learning more about your customers.
No amount of bird’s-eyeview data can replace the front-line experience you'll get from talking to your customers all day. So, why aren't your customer service reps involved in product decision-making? Why aren't your top decision-makers talking to customers every day?
Bezos isn't much of an outlier in this. Apple CEO Tim Cook starts his day by reading emails from customers - he's email@example.com if you need anything - and he's been known to reply to emails about matters as seemingly trivial as distorted hold music on the support line.
Just recently, Stripe CEO Patrick Collison tweeted out the following:
It's worth having a read through the whole thread. Notice how comfortable he and senior decision-makers at Stripe are about handing discussions over to each other in public.
They understand that customer service is the responsibility of every team member. And more than keeping the customer in mind or upholding a standard of service, that means everyone talking to customers on a regular basis.
Back to Amazon, they've mastered the art of e-commerce personalization. They feed oceans of data into their recommendation algorithms to anticipate what customers might want next.
If you don't have a good enterprise resource planning (ERP) inventory system with which to respond to granular trends in your inventory, you risk leaving disappointed customers empty-handed.
Many businesses will take on more stock than they think they'll need. But that just creates wasted space and skyrocketing holding costs in your warehouses. This is another problem Amazon has to tackle, even hiring multiple economists to help plan things like resource allocation, inventory turnover, and delivery logistics.
If you have a dedicated UX team, they'll be looking at web analytics all the time. But does that tell the whole story?
Increasing customer intimacy means every employee who touches the website gets to hear how their data reflects customers' first-hand accounts of how they use your website or your business. This will help them come up with more accurate, relevant, detailed UX personas to run through their models of how the website works. Maybe even use cases they've never thought of.
Teams who've had a period of idle A/B testing, trying different shades of color on the buttons because they feel they've run out of problems to solve, might find themselves rushing to change some text they didn't even imagine could be a problem, improving UX with visual content, or removing unnecessary elements from the onboarding flow everyone just assumes is essential.
Whether you're visiting them in person or making video calls, there's no replacement for meeting with your customers so you can speak to them directly.
In a B2B context your customer experience (CX) team might be having regular meetings with customers about how they're using the product, what issues they might be having, and how to get the most value out of it.
But, wait. Is the product team sitting in on those meetings? They're the people who know the product's inner workings deeper than anyone. Is your marketing team seeing for themselves how it makes users feel?
This is the same principle as the all-hands customer support. You want every member of the team to be working as if your best customers were sitting right next to them telling them what they wanted. You're only going to achieve that level of customer intimacy if everyone is sitting in on a certain number of customer calls every month.
Even if you're not a B2B company, consider the examples of Pinterest and Intuit making house calls. Take a look at companies like Chrysler and Wells Fargo, both of whom set up Customer Advisory Boards to regularly consult with many key customers at once.
These boards might be your company's most lucrative customers. Or, you might decide to be more strategic and talk to customers who fit a certain profile you want to target.
Say you're an e-commerce brand and you do all your selling on one website. Big-picture data is good for an overall checkup on the health of your business, but you're going to have to understand each individual e-commerce journey and build detailed personas out of the patterns you see.
Salesforce found that 75% of customers expect companies to deliver personalized experiences. Only once you understand individual customers can you personalize and localize your site for them.
What is localization in this context? Get creative about how you respond to the data. Does your customer have to work out time zone differences anywhere on the site? Could differences between American and British English be undercutting your UX copy?
Data will only take you so far. Ask your customers about how your product could better fit their needs, personally, and apply those lessons to your personas. It's likely that many people would like the same improvement, but it's never occurred to them that a company would respond to their specific issues if they spoke up.
In his book Behind the Cloud, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff mentions an 80% close rate on new leads who attended one of their city tour events.
Video interviews are useful, but there's no substitute for meeting your customers face-to-face. Events let you do that in a scalable way that could also be a lot of fun.
Sephora routinely holds in-store "Beauty Insider" events for its most loyal customers. Today at Apple events, Apple Store employees get to talk to groups of customers about specific use-cases like photography and software development, as well as more general sessions about getting the most out of their products.
For your company you could host anything from free fitness classes to a coffee meetup, just make sure it's on-brand and relevant for your customers.
Creating a community around your product is a huge asset for your brand. GoProposal boasts a very active Facebook group where customers can talk to each other and key decision-makers in the company about their experiences running their businesses, share their problems, give advice, and network with like-minded people. See the testimonial on their website where one customer says it's worth the price of the product alone.
In-person meetups are another way to do this at scale. Self-organized community meetups have been important to Product Hunt since their inception, and they're happy to help people organize their own events.
The friendships formed at these events are a great way to have customers feel closer to your business and your brand, but you should attend these events at every chance you get.
Finally, you'll often find the most customer-centric companies designing their offices in such a way to keep customers top of mind every day.
Having photos or testimonials on the wall might be one way to do that. But more so than that, it's about the thousands of little signals your team receives every workday about who your company is and why you're doing this. In a remote-first company, this could be as simple as posting customer testimonials in a group chat every day.
Amazon famously has an empty chair in every meeting to remind people of the most important person in any meeting: the customer. They also integrate the customer into their business processes, developing new products like Alexa by "working backwards" from the press release that's going to give them something they didn't even know they wanted.
There are so many easy ways to increase customer intimacy. Giving just 30 minutes out of everyone's workweek could be transformational, and the return on investment can be huge. Software companies that pursue ongoing customer development this way achieve 30% more annual revenue growth than those who don't and it's not hard to see why.
Companies that understand their customers better than their competitors do are the ones who are going to win. They have every team member effortlessly aligned on pleasing them. In return, those loyal customers are willing to do a lot of their selling for them.
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