Managing Customers Tutorial

In the What is Marketing? tutorial we noted that marketers make decisions which result in value to both the marketer and its customers. Throughout the Principles of Marketing Tutorials we emphasize the importance customers play in helping marketers meet their business objectives. To drive home this point, in this tutorial we concentrate our discussion on understanding customers and examining their role in the marketing process. We will see that for most organizations understanding customers is necessary not only because of their effect on marketing decisions but because customers’ activities influence the entire organization.

Yet, understanding customers is a never-ending challenge. One reason is that not all customers are the same and, consequently, benefits sought by one customer may differ from those sought by another. Because of this marketers must continually conduct marketing research to evaluate customers and to determine what they want. And uncovering what customers want is made significantly easier if a company establishes methods designed to manage their customers.

In this tutorial we explore the techniques marketers use to manage their customers. We begin by defining what a customer is and why they are important to an organization. We then look at what tools and strategies must be in place to skillfully manage customers including the crucial requirement that marketers build relationships with their customers. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of how servicing customers is often just as critical as selling products to them.

In general terms, a customer is a person or organization that a marketer believes will benefit from the goods and services offered by the marketer’s organization. As this definition suggests, a customer is not necessarily someone who is currently purchasing from the marketer. In fact, customers may fall into one of three customer groups:

Existing Customers

Consists of customers who have purchased or otherwise used an organization’s goods or services, typically within a designated period of time. For some organizations the time frame may be short, for instance, a coffee shop may only consider someone to be an Existing Customer if they have purchased within the last three months. Other organizations may view someone as an Existing Customer even though they have not purchased in the last few years (e.g., television manufacturer). Existing Customers are by far the most important of the three customer groups since they have a current relationship with a company and, consequently, they give a company a reason to remain in contact with them. Additionally, Existing Customers also represent the best market for future sales, especially if they are satisfied with the relationship they presently have with the marketer. Getting these Existing Customers to purchase more is significantly less expensive and time consuming than finding new customers mainly because they know and hopefully trust the marketer and, if managed correctly, are easy to reach with promotional appeals (i.e., emailing a special discount for new product).

Former Customers

This group consists of those who have formerly had relations with the marketing organization typically through a previous purchase. However, the marketer no longer feels the customer is an Existing Customer either because they have not purchased from the marketer within a certain time frame or through other indications (e.g., a Former Customer just purchased a similar product from the marketer’s competitor). The value of this group to a marketer will depend on whether the customer’s previous relationship was considered satisfactory to the customer or the marketer. For instance, a Former Customer who felt they were not treated well by the marketer will be more difficult to persuade to buy again compared to a Former Customer who liked the marketer but decided to buy from someone else who had a similar product that was priced lower.

Potential Customers

The third category of customers includes those who have yet to purchase but possess what the marketer believes are the requirements to eventually become Existing Customers. As we will see in the Targeting Markets Tutorial, the requirements to become a customer include such issues as having a need for a product, possessing the financial means to buy, and having the authority to make a buying decision. Locating Potential Customers is an ongoing process for two reasons. First, Existing Customers may become Former Customers (e.g., decide to buy from a competitor) and, thus, must be replaced by new customers. Second, while we noted above that Existing Customers are the best source for future sales, it is new customers that are needed in order for a business to significantly expand. For example, a company that sells only in its own country may see less room for sales growth if a high percentage of people in the country are already Existing Customers. In order to realize stronger growth the company may seek to sell their products in other countries where Potential Customers may be quite high.

For marketers simply finding customers who are willing to purchase their goods or services is not enough to build a successful marketing strategy. Instead, as we note in our definition of marketing in the What is Marketing? tutorial, marketers should look to manage customers in a way that will “identify, create and maintain satisfying relationships with customers.” By using marketing efforts that are designed to “maintain satisfying relationships” rather than simply pursuing a quick sale, the likelihood increases that customers will be more trusting of the marketer and exhibit a higher level of satisfaction with the organization. In turn satisfied customers are more likely to become “good” customers.

For our purposes we define a “good” customer as one who holds the potential to undertake activities that offer long-term value to an organization. The activities performed by customers not only include purchasing products, these also include such things as:

  • offering feedback on company performance
  • making prompt payment
  • offering suggestions for new products
  • voluntarily promoting the company’s products to others

These activities along with many others (including profit from product sales) represent the value (i.e., benefits for costs spent) an organization receives from its customers. In the case of “good” customers their potential for providing value should be a signal for marketers to direct additional marketing efforts in building, strengthening and sustaining a relationship with these customers.

The fact that we place the descriptive term “good” in front of customers should not be taken lightly. Not all customers who currently have relationships with an organization (i.e., Existing Customers) should be treated on an equal level. Some consistently spend large sums to purchase products from an organization; others do not spend large sums but hold the potential to do so; and still others use up a large amount of an organization’s resources but contribute little revenue. Clearly there are lines of demarcation between those in the Existing Customer category. As we will see later, identifying this line is critical for marketing success.

For most organizations understanding customers is the key to success while not understanding them is a recipe for failure. It is so important that the constant drive to satisfy customers is not only a concern for those responsible for carrying out marketing tasks; satisfying customers is a concern of everyone in the entire organization.

Whether someone’s job involves direct contact with customers (e.g., salespeople, delivery drivers, telephone customer service representatives) or indirect contact (e.g., production, accounting), all members of an organization must appreciate the role customers play in helping the organization meets its goals. To ensure everyone understands the customer’s role, many organizations continually preach a “customer is most important” message in department meetings, organizational communication (e.g., internal emails, website postings), and corporate training programs. To drive home the importance of customers, the message often contains examples of how customers impact the company. These examples include:

  • Source of Information and Ideas - Satisfying the needs of customers requires organizations maintain close contact with them. Marketers can get close to customers by conducting marketing research (e.g., surveys) and other feedback methods (e.g., website comments forms) that encourage customers to share their thoughts and feelings. With this information marketers are able to learn what people think of their present marketing efforts and receive suggestions for making improvements. For instance, research and feedback methods can offer marketers insight into new products and services sought by their customers.
  • Affects Activities Throughout Organization - For most organizations customers not only affect decisions made by the marketing team but they are the key driver for decisions made throughout the organization. For example, customer’s reaction to the design of a product may affect the type of raw materials used in the product manufacturing process. With customers impacting such a significant portion of a company, creating an environment geared to locating, understanding and satisfying customers is imperative.
  • Needed to Sustain the Organization - Finally, customers are the reason an organization is in business. Without customers or the potential to attract customers, a company is not viable. Consequently, customers are not only key to revenue and profits they are also key to creating and maintaining jobs within the organization.

While on the surface the process for managing customers may seem to be intuitive and straightforward, in reality organizations struggle to accomplish this. One reason for the struggle is that no two customers are the same. What is appealing to one customer may not necessarily work for another.

For instance, a marketer may change how it issues coupons to customers by reducing the frequency of issuing coupons by regular mail and instead directing customers to electronic coupons found on its website. The marketer makes this move to encourage customers to visit the website more often with the hope it will lead to cost savings (e.g., sending out traditional coupons by mail requires postage expense), allow the marketer to acquire more customer information (e.g., monitor their activities when they visit the website), and give the marketer the opportunity to sell more product to the customer (e.g., special promotional messages on the website). However, some long time customers may view electronic coupons as requiring more work on their part compared to coupons delivered through regular mail. In this example the introduction of a new feature may satisfy some customers while irritating others.