Inside the Mix

Companies must strive to place consumers' needs at the center of business strategies

Companies must strive to place consumers' needs at the center of business strategies

Anyone who's ever worked in a retail environment knows, normally to their chagrin, that the customer is always right.

That principle works equally in marketing, especially when taken a step further to say the customer is not only always right, but should also drive product development by how he or she interacts with the brand.

That's not always so easy to tap, however. A profile of Procter &Gamble CEO A. G. Lafley in The Wall Street Journal last week focused on his deceptively simple notion that product development needs to come from what customers need. But, he says, it's not enough to ask what they need; you need to put yourself in a position to actually observe the customers, see how they perform the tasks they do with the product, and listen to the way they describe the experience to others.

The reason that simply asking the customers what they want is not enough is that most consumers, when faced with a minor hiccup with a product or service, will just solve the problem themselves. Lafley describes a situation in which customers who said they found opening a particular package was "easy" were in fact opening it with a screwdriver. Of course that was easy!

The fact is, many usability problems are almost unnoticed by the customer until an ingenious way of solving them is communicated. How many times have we seen a product on television - I'm specifically thinking about cleaning products here - and felt an urge to buy something we never knew we needed because it performed in a way we didn't think possible, or even necessary. I never knew I needed my beloved Swiffer before I knew it existed. (The flip side of this is the overstatement of "new and improved" in a product's marketing, a method very popular during my childhood. But now the cynical consumer sees that message and feels as if the company has been requiring them to buy heretofore substandard products.)

Lafley has made his reputation on his ability to listen to women and frequently jokes about the influence the ladies in his family have had on him. But now that Gillette is due to come under the P&G umbrella, there is a whole new audience to wrap itself around - men. And men are likely just as unwilling to admit they're having problems with a product, perhaps even more so. (The clich? of men not asking for directions springs to mind.)

While Lafley seems to have an intuitive approach to putting consumers' needs at the core of the company, it's still a technical process, says Dr. Jay Galbraith, author of a new book, Designing the Customer-Centric Organization. To be properly customer-centric, he says, an entity must apply the right kind of organizational structures, processes, reward systems, and people policies. A tool he has developed maps the number and diversity of products offered against the degree of integration and complexity between them. The result points the company toward the organizational networks it must maintain.

For, as he says, a key barrier to converting to a customer-centric organization is the belief that a company is already so, when it isn't. Recognizing that and actually doing something about it - as Lafley did when he put product development in the hands of customers, rather than lab technicians - is the best endorsement of David Ogilvy's much-quoted tenet of marketing: The consumer is not a moron; she's your wife.

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