EDITOR'S CUT

Catching Up To The Cagey Consumer

It’s summer in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m planning to grow herbs for cooking, but the young salesperson at the garden nursery can’t answer my questions. He’s trying to sound like an expert while spouting sophomoric advice on what I should do and buy.

Does he think I’m an idiot? I’m getting a little annoyed and losing patience.

Then it hits me: The poor kid, probably making minimum wage, doesn’t know I spent the last hour checking out YouTube videos, product review sites and online gardening and cooking forums before coming here. Despite his age, he’s part of a dated retail sales system that set him up to fail. And I’m the newly empowered consumer who won’t stand for shoddy service.

This customer relationship isn’t going to work.

It’s pure folly trying to force a square peg into a round hole. The customer experience suffers greatly. A brand needs to get ahead of the conversation and give customers what they want, nay, what they demand. Marketers and salespeople must learn to adapt quickly to the whims of the well-informed consumer.

This is no easy task. In a digital world where expert knowledge is just a click away on a mobile phone, a customer’s desires can change from moment to moment. The modern customer is a moving target for marketers, which is our recurring theme in this issue of Marketing Magnified:

Suman Sukar, author of “Customer Driven Disruption,” writes about the need for a new kind of marketing organization to deal with this new kind of customer. He contends that corporate leadership is too far removed from customers, thus it’s incumbent on marketers to understand shifting customer needs.

“The role of marketing has to change as customers have become better informed,” Sukar says. “The goal of selling products or services that customers don’t want will not endear a marketing organization to its company’s customers or leaders. It’s time for marketing to redefine its mission.”

What do customers want at this moment? The CMO Council knows. In a new report, “Exceeding the Requirements of the Trust Economy,” a majority of global marketing leaders (57 percent) believe the most critical demand of the modern customer is data security, privacy and accountability.

The report, produced in partnership with Akamai Technologies, points to the growing need for customer trust to influence every corporate decision and customer engagement across every digital and physical channel.

In other words, informed customers are increasingly wary about their personal data. They want privacy assurances from vendors. Along these lines, a PwC survey found that 87 percent of consumers will take their business elsewhere if they don’t trust that a company is handling their data responsibly.

Trust is on my mind as I leave the garden nursery. Consumers go to a specialty retailer in part to get expert advice, but I can no longer trust that the brand would be up to the task. I’ve talked to technology professionals who feel the same way whenever they step inside a computer retail store: they do their best to avoid salespeople.

There’s no question that the modern customer is hard to please—if not impossible—and is frustratingly fickle.

Weeks after my vexing nursery experience, I’m sitting outside enjoying my latest passion: smoking sweet Virginia leaf tobacco in a long-stemmed, apple-bowl pipe made of briar wood, chosen for its natural resistance to fire, when I notice dead leaves in my plant pot. I had forgotten to water the herbs.

The truth is, my interest in cooking with fresh herbs was fleeting.

Like many empowered consumers who have the Internet’s vast knowledge at their fingertips, I often get distracted. It’s too easy to click to the next thing; too easy to learn something new; too easy to—a California quail! Maybe I should get into bird watching.

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