The Customer Is Not Your CMO

Walmart's "It's Back" Tags Direct Customer to a Detergent Reintroduced to Store
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Wouldn’t it be great if customers ran marketing?

No, I don’t think it would be great. In fact, it would suck.

It flies in the face of the way business occurs. People within a company determine how to build products for, market to, and serve customers.

A customer centric business model is smart and often the mark of a successful company. Great companies exist to serve these customers. Today, the social business movement (an unfortunate term born to be clichéd from the get go) seeks to reinvigorate modern companies with a listening-based customer-centric model.

But let’s be clear here, customer centric does not make your CMO a customer. The customer has no interest in showing a company how to market. Honestly, the only time they tend to interact with a company after a sale is because of a customer service issue, or because they are ready for a next generation product.

Yes, there are die hard evangelists, and these are invaluable resources for a company. But the customer has no seat at the table, how can they be the CMO?

Nor would they be good at it because they have no professional training. While crowdsourcing advertisements have yielded some diamonds for products like Doritos, an overwhelming majority of the crowdsourced ads are crap. Really, they are. We just see the one good one out of the lot.

What About Customer Service?

Some say that customer service should be the linchpin in a customer marketing experience. Let’s be clear: Customer service is a touchpoint, not The Touchpoint.

It’s a feedback loop for product development and marketing, and the front line. When consistently excellent, customer service can create word of mouth and new sales.

Companies that don’t understand and listen to their customers experience problems because not only are the ignoring their customer, but also the flaws in their offering. That’s because customer service is usually activated when people are pissed, not when they are happy.

What about the vast majority of happy customers who never call? How can customer service represent them?

Just like the army doesn’t want GI Joe managing a supply line, international troop deployment, and war strategy, I don’t want customer service driving marketing. While feedback can lead to innovation, overall I think the effect would be stymied, reactive products that don’t advance anywhere nearly as quickly as they currently do.

Just my two cents on working with customers, crowdsourcing for a few years, and building programs to market for companies, including a turnaround campaign or two that involved negative customer perception. What do you think? Is the customer your CMO?


  • Geoff, these are wise observations. While listening to one’s customers is certainly crucial to maintaining a relevant feedback loop, I think the professional communicators need to be trusted with the strategic marketing offerings. They’re there for a reason. Or at least they should be.

    • Exactly.  In theory, the CMO and the team should be more competent about marketing than the average customer.  Of course, we have seen where this is not so in some situations, most recently Netflix, but generally, yeah.

  • Hi Geoff,
    You are spot on here. I love your name, “Social Media Wonks”, which I think I saw on a Facebook comment. I think that some folks are “Socially Intoxicated” by the variety of Platform Channels, and yet aren’t doing any of them very well, but I digress.

    Some companies are actually producing cutting edge products, and has been written before, they are producing products that their customer didn’t realize they ever needed.

    There are pieces of “Listening to the Customer” that are way overrated. It is a PIECE of the pie as you elude too.  

    • LOL, perhaps a bit, too, snarky on my part, but I digress… Innovation wouldn’t happen if customers drove the company, or at least not as fast.

  • Ahh  – the social media bandwagon can be a dangerous ride to blindly jump upon – especially when companies let it overly dictate its own culture, vision and the creative direction that stirred the original interest & passion from customers, markets & industry.

    As Henry Ford was noted for saying, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”

    And don’t forget the infamous Homer Simpson self-designed car.

    Recognizing, embracing & bringing customers  closer to a brand through social connections & experiences can strengthen & enhance a company – supporting service, R&D, sales, partnerships, marketing, innovation, awareness.    But overly reliance on social media feedback & direction can lead to myopic, knee jerk reactions that can turn a well directed & committed company into a rudderless entity that can quickly lose its way.

    We wouldn’t have the iPod, iPhone or iPad if customers & inmates ran the companies & marketing groups today. 

    • Very true. And this is at the heart of the matter when it comes to the whole customer issue.  They really don’t know what they ant next, they just want it done right. Great comment, Robert.

  • The customer is not your CMO, however, since when has no professional training in marketing ever kept someone from thinking they are an “expert” marketer . Marketing is really being able to understand  many elements — customer demand, product development, sales, market analysis and communications and synthesize them into a marketing strategy. Customer service helps keep the lines of communications open.

    • LOL.  I love the winks. Kind of like those “ace” bloggers who know so much.  Ha ha!  Glad I had you as my boss. You, I feel sorry for you, having me as an employee!

  • Years ago Michael Treacy wrote there are only three ways to compete: (1) total customer solution, (2) operational cost excellence, or (3) product innovation. Each is valid, but you have to pick one. Apple is a product innovator (which explains Jobs’ public statements about not liking focus groups). Dell, in the 1990s, used customer solutions by being heavy on customization, personalization, and customer segmentation (Amazon does this today). And Walmart is of course the most famous cost-controller; the staff there is surly, but we go ’cause the big-screen TVs are just 200 bucks.

    The point is customers could be your “CMO,” or close to it, if you compete by focusing on customers vs. products or ops. Most ad agencies and digital specialty shops use this model, because we’ll sell anything that customers want and serve them in any way possible … which is likely why so many writers inside advertising or social media firms think customer-centricity is the only approach.

    But customer focus is only one way to compete. If you can win by inventing products customers don’t know they want (see: tablets or two-door minivans), or keep customers by dropping margins near zero (see: your local electric utility), customer feedback doesn’t mean a damn thing.

    Chocolate never needed a focus group, and commodity plays can’t afford customer service.

    • I would say you’re right, at least on the close to it, part. You can be completely customer centric, totally focused end to end, and that’s what makes your company succeed. I think Dell has done a good job of picking up this side of the business in the past five years.  Good points, Ben!

      • @benkunz:disqus you always have astute things to say. In pure business model speak the best two are low cost provider and value added supplier. Most firms muddle in between.

        @geofflivingston:disqus your point expands this. Because customer centric doesn’t have to mean marketing or R&D. It can mean focus on retention and ensuring the customer loves your service, product etc.

        My first computer was a windows 3.1 dell desktop in 1995. Got it 2 months before Win95 came out. It died a year later just after warranty. I sent it back and they wanted to charge me $700 to replace the motherboard (refurbished at that) and I could buy a new modern one for $170. I told them keep it and F-U.  In fact they fixed it and billed me. But they wound up sending it back fixed and for free after I got my employer who did a company buy that included me involved. I never bought Dell again and spent about 5 years railing on them to everyone. But they were cocky back then. Today much more humbled. So I know it is a different company.

  • I particularly enjoyed the part of your argument about the overwhelmingly majority of crowd sourced ads are crap. Imagine how much worse they could be with a creative brief that just said…. Give me something funny. I’m sure we’d see great material that would deliver stellar results for the participating companies.

    • LOL, I can only imagine. And of course when they hand in a Dilbert comic strip, they won’t have researched copyright law.

  • Like everything else new in this world, the whole “social business” thing draws a bunch of hacks that like the shiny new thing and a quick dollar. They draw other hacks which a catalyst to the gold rush mentality. Once things settle down the creme rises to the top. This post will help set some things straight.

    • So much to say about this topic.  It definitely feels like it is going down the wrong chute, at least for now.

  • No, they are not a CMO, more like a an arm of market research. Good companies though sometimes cram customer feedback in a cubical, pay them meager wages and give them fruitcakes for Christmas. Better companies honor them by giving them an office with a view and stock options. Customer voices are a valid part of marketing and should be treated well, but should not the be the head enchilada.

    • Well stated. Respecting your customer is a delicate balancing act.

    • Yeah right, but, but customer has a big part in making the business successful. They are the one who are using the products. Feedbacks are very important from them. In this regards, many online programs are getting customer feedbacks like this website…

  • Interesting reading. You have
    to listen to your customer, but there are times when you must remember
    that the customer does not have the full understanding of what it takes
    to run your business, obtain and offer a new product/service, etc.
    I remember years ago, the owner of an independent clothing store, which
    has survived for years despite WalMart, Target, recessions and such,
    had a very specific strategy to fighting WalMart – if WalMart carried a
    brand, he would not carry that brand. He once mentioned to me that he
    was frequently asked if he carried a particular brand of jeans (I think
    wrangler, but I’m not sure). WalMart was selling them for $15 for one
    pair of jeans. He told me he would have to sell them for $30 – twice
    WalMart’s price – to make a $1 profit. Would listening to the customer in
    this case have been a good business move? You can make a lot
    of arguments about how the customer may also buy other products that have a higher
    level of profit while they were in the indie store, just as you can
    argue they’d just bitch about the jeans being twice as high as WalMart’s
    as they walked out the door heading to wally world. At some
    point, I think we have to accept that the business owner may have an
    idea of what is best for the business and may actually know more about
    his business than the customer. Listen to the customer. Consider what they say. And temper it with your expertise about your business/industry. Then decide.

    • Great point. I think it is another aspect of the amateur knows more than the specialist meme we have seen become quite popular in the past the ten years. But the reason to do business with someone is their specialization and expertise, otherwise you would do it yourself, right?  Great comment, Clay.

  • Hey Geoff, Danny Brown shared on G+, I dropped him this comment over there and he smartly suggested I post it here where a robust discussion was happening … 
     I think there is a distinction to be made between a leader making final decisions, and data, ideas, attempts, prototypes, new apps and more that can influence tough decisions being born from competition, consumers or communities. Geoff paints with a super broad “Crowdsourcing mostly sucks” brush in this post. Competition on an open platform allows you to not pay for “bad” ideas and still drives extreme value outcomes. Keep in mind there is a big difference between product innovation and marketing flare … but even in the extreme case of Doritos (mostly a marketing ploy) they still end up with some great commercials … What Geoff is missing is how a 21st century leader (including CMO’s) will wield hyperspecialized platforms and communities to get more done and to innovate in a new fashion. Thx to Danny for sharing on G+ and to you too Geoff for writing a piece that got folks chatting!

    • Actually, it’s not a super broad brush, it’s experience. Having crowdsourced quite a bit I can tell you from experience that 90% or more of it of it is bad.  And that includes innovation, too. 

      What is a broad brush is the “21st century  leader will wield hyperspecialized platforms” statement without any suggestions about how to manage crowdsourcing, which is an extremely time intensive experience that requires significant management and process. Please show us an example, not a Silicon Valley hyperbole.

      REgardless, I do appreciate you stopping by with a differing opinion.

      • Appreciate the candor Geoff and any day your comment gets quoted by the purveyor of the blog is an all right day! We see things differently clearly … glad to show you some  examples off line (can’t in this forum – clients are global 1000s in some of the most delicate industries – pharma, financials etc … ) … but sincerely glad to connect/share.

        I didn’t go too deep in a comment, so I concur my statement on its own appears broad and not deep. Appreciate the recognition of the time commitment needed to succeed in Open Innovation/Crowdsroucing – it’s not magic pixie dust just like you can’t push a button and suddenly have your entire enterprise in the Cloud. And I’ve never been to Silicon Valley, I live in Connecticut ;) I would also share with you a role in our community we call a Copilot and what they accomplish wrt the processes of effectively running successful competitions. I think you’d appreciate what they accomplish since you understand  how labor intensive it can be to manage crowdsourced competitions. 

        There is a major difference between accessing a community of consumers and a community of specialized & generalist talents – On top of that – most crowdsourcing mechanisms focus heavily on FEI (Front End) things like ideation, concepts, etc … In my world, the entire dev life cycle is spanned so you can bridge sincerely good ideas to prototypes, to UI/UX re-envisioned docs, to architecture, and over to the back end of software dev and actually get the thing to market… Understood you were chatting with regards to marketing and specifically videos that are crowdsourced – but just anchoring my comment to real experience and not hyperbole. 

        Here’s my point: CIO’s are being stripped of power at the same time CMO’s are driving more technology decisions – This is logical as more marketing is tech driven, interface innovation driven and value creation is happening on the business side … a CMO (or problem solving CIO that wants to maintain relevancy) can recognize what can effectively be accomplished internally and what simply can’t be. They utilize platforms to work in a massively parallel fashion and over any given stretch of time, they produce more assets and created more value for their company. Glad to show you what I mean here as well. 

        I agree with your overarching sentiment that your consumer shouldn’t act as your CMO. Leaders aren’t amorphous crowds, that can be VERY bad (Mob Mentality vs. a Leader). I was, obviously, taking exception to what I believe is a broad comment about Crowdsourcing. I appreciate your direct experience in “it”, but I have experience that proves out the exact opposite and inside industries and verticals where the work is highly innovative, often proprietary and technology driven. 

        Thx Geoff.

        • This is a great comment, Clinton. I definitely am interested in learning more about the shifting dynamic between the CMO and CTO, and the shifting power dynamic.  This is an area that I only have a cursory knowledge of and would like to know more.

          And yes, your comments reveal that you are quite experienced with crowdsourcing.  To the Connecticut Yankees!

          Thank you for your candor!

  • As anyone – and I mean ANYONE – who has ever worked with the public can tell you, the customer is always right… until the customer is wrong. And the customer is wrong more often than most of us would like to admit, especially when it comes to anything B2C.

  • I have nothing intelligent to add here.

    I’m glad I know you though :) 

  • I am agreed to Robert Collins

    Thanks for your post !

  • Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me.It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I’m sure you had fun writing this article.

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