Customer Closeness — is your company really up for it? And what to do if it’s not.

Customer closeness work can be defined in different ways, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll define it here as ‘organised opportunities for a company’s staff to engage live and in person with the customers they serve, in order to better understand and act on the needs of those customers’.

I’m a great believer in customer closeness. It’s often incredibly enjoyable, reconnects staff to the company’s mission, and can generate real ‘aha’ moments that spur action. But company culture and leadership can affect how much we invest in it, implying a lack of consensus around its role and value. The companies who invest most in customer closeness generally have a senior advocate who embraces and champions it. Those companies roll out ongoing programmes where staff connect with customers on a regular basis and sometimes in innovative ways. Their programmes are considered part of the ‘cost of doing business’ and may even escape the scrutiny of ROI justifications (happy days!).

But what if you don’t have that senior advocate? Or what if your leaders pay lip service to customer closeness but then swiftly cut the activity when times are hard or a new priority emerges?

As a clientside insight professional I lived through both scenarios, and developed strategies to continue to deploy customer closeness, even in adversity! Here’s my tuppence worth.

I suggest a fundamental rule is, don’t run your customer closeness as a standalone activity. If it’s a standalone activity, i.e. a new ‘thing’, it’s vulnerable to the chop as soon as the corporate wind changes direction, and may not stand up to rigorous ROI scrutiny against other work streams promising in-quarter ‘results’. It’s especially vulnerable if its role is simply to ‘bring to life’ existing insight rather than generate any new understanding.  Consider avoiding the term ‘customer closeness’ (or variant) if your company doesn’t understand or wholeheartedly buy in to it.

Ensure you use customer closeness as a means to a very specific end. Why not replace a ‘classic’ qualitative research study with a piece of customer closeness work? Involve staff as collaborators around a targeted brief, and then send them out ‘into the wild’ to investigate (albeit perhaps in a cleverly orchestrated manner). This requires the steadfast commitment of all concerned and typically works best when a pre-existing functional team works together to collate insights and agree upon next steps.

Another approach is to deploy customer closeness as insight activation - and label it such. We know that engaging with customers can galvanise staff to fix pain points, so rather than list out the pain points in a powerpoint report, why not invite your customers to explain or demonstrate those pain points to staff directly? (in my last blog post ‘The question everyone working in insight should think about’ I recommended we ask what’s in it for stakeholders when delivering research findings. By generating empathy with customers, stakeholder resistance is already at least partially overcome). I’ve also observed customer closeness being used to great effect to activate and embed a new segmentation.

Finally, you can build customer closeness into a work stream owned by another part of the business. Your HR team’s employee induction programme may well benefit from a ‘meet the customer’ experience at its heart. Company events are another example. 

I’m sure there are many other opportunities for your staff to reap the benefits of direct customer interaction. Insight Angels would love to hear your thoughts.

Matthew Gray