How Marketing can lead process improvement

To keep their companies in shape, managers must explain to employees what customers experience and expect. The head of marketing is typically charged with gathering market research on customers and their expectations. Most heads of marketing that I’ve seen gather “voice of the customer” research for product design decisions, but they don’t do enough to help employees understand what customers are looking for. They don’t create an ethic of being truly customer-driven. Here are three ways they can.

1: The head of marketing brings customer research to life for employees by creating customer personas.

Most employees don’t read customer research data; they don’t find it compelling or interesting. But they do respond to stories, especially those that emphasize the importance of their role in the company and how it affects the customer experience.

Consider the case of “Al and Betty” at Grainger, the $7 billion distributor of facilities supplies. The company’s U.S. leadership team realized that to get every employee to connect with customers, they had to find a way to give “the customer” a name and a face.

Their process started with the question, “Who are our customers?” The leadership team realized they had two types of customers. The first they named “Al,” a facilities maintenance professional. His job is to ensure that a building is up and running, so he’s motivated by time. He needs to get Grainger’s products, such as pumps, power tools, and electrical supplies, quickly. The stick figure they created of Al has a clock.

They second named “Betty.” She’s the purchasing manager at her company. She wants the best deals on the products and services her company buys. The Betty stick figure holds a dollar sign.

Grainger’s leaders used Al to help employees in the firm’s U.S. branch offices think about their service process from their customers’ perspective. They explained how Al typically comes to a branch to pick up an order and wants to get in and out quickly. Other times he comes in with a broken product. Then he’ll stand at the counter and work with Grainger’s people to solve his problem. Because these are often complex, such as a part for a 40-year-old boiler, it can take 30-to-45 minutes to find the right solution.

By thinking about these two very different reasons why Al comes to a Grainger branch, office managers realized they had not designed the interaction to optimize both kinds of experiences. Now, branch employees are redesigning the experiences from Al’s point of view, with the benefit of customers’ ideas and feedback.

2: The head of marketing sponsors experiments with customers to improve their buying decisions.

Another way marketing heads can bring the customer experience into the organization is to develop a deep understanding of the customer’s decision process and find ways to improve it. For example, one of the reasons Netflix has flourished is that it recommends movies you would like based on your ratings of other movies you’ve seen. Amazon.com does the same thing for books based on what other people have purchased. Assisting customers with their buying process can shift their relationship with a supplier from “vendor” to “partner.”

Using tried-and-true process improvement techniques, heads of marketing can help their organizations co-create new processes and offerings with their customers and even involve suppliers. For example, Grainger has formed teams in brand management for each customer segment to identify solutions that result in quantifiable bottom-line improvement. Using continuous improvement methods, a team tests a new offer with a small group of customers first to see whether it resonates. If the answer is yes, the team then determines the most effective methods for building competence in their sales team to deliver the new offer to customers. Based on the small-scale test, they adjust and fully launch only when they have the right results on both tests: measurable positive customer impact and a reliable sales process.

3: The head of marketing spends time with employees who work with customers and is an advocate for them internally.

In a previous post on Customer-Centric Continuous Improvement, I wrote that the ability of a company to stay focused on process improvement depends on getting executives out of their offices and engaging with customers. More than anyone in the C-suite, the head of marketing needs to spend time with employees who touch customers and be the customers’ advocate. For example, Bob Coggin, the former senior vice president of marketing at Delta Air Lines, had breakfast once a month with 12-16 employees who dealt with customers. He asked these Delta workers to tell him what they needed to deliver a better product. Once a quarter he hosted a session for all frontline managers and brought in customers who could sound off on their experiences with the company.

How have you seen the head of marketing successfully bring the customer experience to each employee?

This first appeared in Harvard Business Review and has been lightly edited.

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Categories: Continuous Improvement, Marketing, Process Management

Author:Brad Power

Brad is a consultant and researcher in process innovation. His current research is on sustaining attention to process management. He is currently conducting research with the Lean Enterprise Institute.

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