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January 19, 2019

How many CEOs really understand the ir customers

Successful businesses are built on superior senses. Senses of timing, opportunity, responsibility and yes, even humour. None of these is as important as the ability to sense the market. Bill Gates, Sam Walton, and Richard Branson brought these to the businesses they founded. In Africa, large enterprises are growing and spreading beyond their domestic market driven by leaders with these senses. Who would have thought that the biggest retail bank by branch footprint would be founded in Togo?

Paying attention to customers is not a new idea, but very often CEOs see this as the parish of the sales or marketing department. They are often enticed away by discussions with international partners, banks, private equity funds, government officials, and chest thumping sessions with competitor CEOs. The more this happens, the more their intelligence about the market becomes second or even third hand. It is hard to apply superior senses to third hand information.

There is also a danger that senior managers confuse information with knowledge. Even if you have information from most levels of the distribution channel, you will not see how each customer relates to the next, or how they see your competitors.

Some years ago, I worked with a global petroleum company. Every quarter they diligently assembled their leadership team to listen to a market research presentation. This was a very long meeting, as the downstream business of the company was large and complex. It was also made longer by a very verbose and discursive presenter who took us around the houses and back up the hill. Like many research companies at the time, he was unable to suggest concrete points of action beyond the very obvious. And the leadership group was not action focussed – to be honest they were more concerned with how their superiors overseas saw them. As that depended on them executing global initiatives to a pre-determined template, they had no interest in the local customer information being presented to them. I attended six of these meetings, and it became the marketing equivalent of Groundhog Day. Also, the CEO never attended.

I’m a great fan of customer personification. Taking the time and trouble to profile customers and potential customers from a wide range of sources. Face to face interviews, sales force reports, distributor feedback – but also general information about society gleaned from the web, traditional media and word of mouth. As such it builds a qualitative picture, rather than a quantitative one. But it is qualitative information that CEO’s and their marketing teams need if they are to apply, or develop, the superior senses we are talking about.

Customer profiling can be a fun, team-based activity. Making up large boards populated by photographs of typical customers and their living and working environments. Notes about their hopes, and fears. Press cuttings about tax increases and other unwelcome government developments that will affect their behaviour.

If you involve your PR or advertising agency people, then you add more colour to the picture because they have the benefit of working across many market segments. And learnings from how people react to chicken products might inform how relevant they see your chocolate brand.

Customer profiling is not a precise exercise. You can pull it apart if you are so minded. But bringing a physical picture of the target consumer to a leadership meeting reminds everyone, from the chief finance officer to the production director that the business exists to serve human beings. When you remember that, you can apply your superior senses to their present and future needs.


Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising. Most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside; an international company that helps organisations deliver their brands and strategies through their people.

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