Why businesses must ‘own’ their customers

Businesses that ‘customer-lead’ through intermediaries, must gain control of that process, monitoring it as it unfolds.

Who ‘owns’ your customers? If you think you do, good for you. Still, read on to confirm so.

Today’s piece targets businesses that say they are customer driven (customer-centric, customer-led etc.), and yet, they are not in direct contact with their customers. In fact, they depend on third parties (intermediaries) to do so. Meaning (consciously or unconsciously) they define their customer as the third party. Nothing wrong with this, just don’t stop there.  Because, it’s that thinking that moved VISA from pole position to distant second in terms of cashless payments (in Kenya).

VISA did not see any need to drive its usage directly to end-users (customers making a payment), insisting that that was the banks’ responsibility; that VISA was merely a platform for banks to use. Well, MPESA is also a platform but they went straight to the end-user wisely avoiding any intermediaries. The rest is history. Uber didn’t look for established cab companies with fleets of cars (say, KENATCO), which would have been the traditional and easier way of doing things; they chose instead to ‘own’ the end user (passenger) and went straight to him.

Companies that sell fuel may say they are customer-first but are they really? How do they know about the fuel attendant that insulted or short-changed the driver? And assuming they monitor social media for reviews (if at all existent) is this reactive way effective? In any case, likely the compliant will be about this petrol station at that location. The name of the fuel company (say Ajeep) may be mentioned to pin-point the offending dealer, as in ‘the Ageep in Bamburi’. It’s easy for Ageep to say the problem is the dealer but not our fuel.  Pre-MPESA and Uber that may have washed. Today, that’s like a Cabinet Secretary complaining that, ”I can do my job; the problem is the politics!” Or, a husband, “The problem with my marriage is not me, it’s my wife.” Both are two sides to the same coin. When my VISA card doesn’t go through, I may vocally lambast my bank but will silently do so VISA.

This dependency on intermediaries to cater for one’s customers runs another risk. A new player in the cigarette industry in Kenya was exhilarated about his rapidly growing sales. It was as if smokers were lapping up their cigarettes. It was not until six months later that they realised that the dominant competitor was their sole ‘customer’. He was buying the cigarettes in bulk from distributors and burning them!  From adverts, smokers knew the cigarettes existed, but they couldn’t access them. As the head of a global fast-moving consumer goods company once told his staff: “The customer doesn’t care how state-of-the-art our strategy is. He only cares that his favourite seasoning is on the shelf when he needs it!”

It is for this reason that businesses that ‘customer-lead’ through intermediaries, must gain control of that process, monitoring it as it unfolds.

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