It’s hard to imagine a mantra more powerful in modern commercial circles ‘identify and meet customer needs’. It’s also hard to imagine one more mesmerising in its delusions. To ‘get’ buyer-centricity we need to rise above its amazing mind-bending qualities.
First, let’s appreciate the power and subtlety of this mantra.
- It has infinite potential and therefore appears complete; it means we have to search no further for answers. Human needs and wants have no bounds, so at first glance the mantra leaves us nothing else to consider. This effect is subtle but hugely important: it shuts down curiosity. We no longer have to worry about what we are doing, only how well we are doing it.
- It’s both a call to action (what to do) and a guide to action (how to do it). To meet customer needs we first have to identify these needs, which means we need to focus on customers, understand them and gain insight into them. This is a clear agenda for work and progress.
- It is a moral justification. What better a win-win is there than prospering by meeting customer needs? Everybody benefits; everybody is striving to serve the customer better. Success is a reward for doing the right thing.
Put these three qualities together – completeness (and therefore closedness), practicality and moral purpose – and you have a recipe for ideological triumph.
Now let’s consider the assumptions the mantra smuggles in along the way. All of them are perfect expressions of an industrial age mindset.
- A corporate perspective. As soon as you utter the mantra ‘identify and meet customer needs’ you leave the world of the individual and cross the fence to the other side. You are no longer looking at the world through the eyes of an individual. You are looking at ‘customers’ and potential customers through the eyes of a corporation. You have externalised yourself, becoming an outsider ‘focusing’ on an object of interest (You simply cannot ‘focus’ on yourself from the inside. Try it). That’s why, behind its ritual exhortations to ‘get close’ to customers, mantra is in fact, both the expression and a cause of deep estrangement. Marketers’ quest for ‘closeness’ to their customers is just a symptom of the huge and irrevocable distance that has been created.
- A control perspective. The mantra ‘identify and meet customer needs’ unwittingly sucks you into a deep and almost invisible assumption. It is the corporation doing all the identifying and meeting: the corporation is doing everything; the customer is doing nothing. The corporation is active; the customer passive. The corporation is the subject; the customer the object. The almost inevitable baggage of the identify and meet customer needs mantra then, is that the individual is powerless and passive … ‘needy’.
- The supply perspective. As soon as you utter the mantra ‘identify and meet customer needs’ you assume a massive and insurmountable division of labour between customers and companies. Needs are met by producers who produce. Value resides only in the processes of supply. All ‘the consumer’ has to do is consume.
- Corporate narcissism and the assumption of ‘customer capture’. By definition, a customer is someone who buys things from us. The word ‘customer’ assumes a pre-existing, one-to-one relationship between the company and its customer. The customer agenda is only about the value provided by that particular company – not the value ‘needed’ by the customer overall. At the same time, it defines customer value in terms of what that one particular company produce.
This last assumption generates a huge blind spot in the world of marketing. The real, underlying reason for the mantra is not because marketers want to meet peoples’ needs, but because they want to make money selling stuff. The real purpose of the mantra is to ensure the customer buys this particular marketer’s particular product or service.
That’s why, in reality, most day-to-day activities of most marketers do not revolve around ‘identifying and meeting needs’. They revolve around something entirely different: trying to influence customers and potential customers to choose their particular offerings. Here, marketing quickly flips over from ‘identifying and meeting customer needs’ to ‘changing customer attitudes and behaviours’ … (for the company’s benefit). Not about meeting customer needs therefore, but meeting the needs of the corporation.
This leaves one set of customer needs completely sidelined and ignored: the need to ‘make the right choice for me and my circumstances’. No marketer is interested in meeting this need. It might lead the individuals to choose an alternative supplier.
To see just how limiting and limited the mantra really is, consider an alternative. ‘A buyer-centric business or service helps individuals make and implement decisions better.’
Making better decisions is the fountainhead of all value, because it necessarily leads us to the right product or service. It also takes us way beyond all those industrial age assumptions. It looks out at the world from the point of view of the individual. It’s about better use of information, as distinct to the supply of products or services. It’s about the individual being active and in control, not the corporation. It’s about the individual’s purposes being placed centre stage.
Also, in the process of making better decisions, we as individuals cannot help but identify and articulate needs – thereby overcoming the estrangement generated by the marketing mantra.
“Helping individuals make and implement decisions better” isn’t a perfect description of what Right Side Up businesses and service do, but it’s a start. Can you help me improve on it?