They say 'the customer is king', but relatively few marketers seem to believe it. But in today's austere economic climate, it has never been more significant, according to Uber UK. This article is copyright 2012 The Best Customer Guide.

With their lighter wallets, customers are buying into brands they can relate to the most, selecting the products that they truly believe in and the services in which they see the most value. Gone are the days of half-hearted frivolity with respect to customer purchases - and this means that marketers must capture the hearts and minds of their customers.

Becoming a customer-centric business
It's very easy to convince yourself that you are intuitively 'in tune' with your customers and their attitudes, preferences, likes and dislikes, but have you ever actually asked them? Strategic customer research is crucial so that you can confidently put the customer at the centre of all business decisions.

Surveys, focus groups and interviews can all help gather key customer insight which will ensure that you create a sound, salient customer value proposition which holds dominion over your target market. By asking for their views, thoughts and opinions, it's possible to sincerely align your all-important core brand values with what your customers' hearts' desire to make sure that yours is their product or service of choice.

Once that core proposition is right, we're all for customer acquisition, diversification and exploring cross sell opportunities too. Your existing customers are your bread and butter and, once you have their undivided attention, you can use this to your advantage as you ask them for their thoughts on opportunities to grow your business.

Haemorrhaging customers
There are many risks associated with not getting under the skin of your customers and these could be very costly for your business. We face a challenging and increasingly competitive marketplace. Even if they're serving you well at the moment, if your customers' attitudes are not fully consistent with your brands core values and these values don't radiate from every element of your product or service offering, there's a high risk that a competitor can come along and seduce your customer base. Spurred on by a double dip recession, the increasingly savvy customer won't think twice about switching to a competitor who promises a more appealing value proposition.

Consider a really well-performing garden centre group. As a great way to give customers some 'feel good factor' around the brand, they decide to hook up with some other non-competing businesses in the local area to offer benefits and discounts on other products and services that their customers would find useful. As a destination garden centre, however, it turns out that their highest value, most loyal customers come from a considerable distance away from their sites, so they're not engaged by these local partnerships at all. In fact, linking up with more national brands would have been much more effective and engaging for their core customer base.

Giving customers what they don't want
Customers love to feel that they're being offered a little bit extra by a brand they love, particularly if it feels like it's especially for them. But consider the impact of getting it wrong: for example, introducing a 2 for 1 offer on meals over the weekend at a restaurant might seem like a really generous 'thank you' to customers, but it loses impact and may even alienate an older audience of key brand advocates who would only ever visit for lunch during the week.

Nobody can afford to waste their marketing efforts. Identifying key customer segments, attitudes and behaviours through research means that communications and promotions can be planned with renewed intelligence, dramatically increasing the likelihood of running campaigns which successfully generate an excellent return on investment.

Successful customer research projects can take many forms and can be planned to fit any budget. Whatever the research method, it's really important to ensure that the right questions are asked of the right customers in the right way to facilitate the provision of honest feedback, reaping the rewards of valid, reliable results on which to base your forthcoming business decisions. For example, consider:

  1. Online surveys
    The cheapest of the research methods, online surveys generate a top-level view of the thoughts and feelings of your consumers. The use of multiple choice questions means they're perfect for generating strong statistics and gauging customer trends.
  2. Focus groups
    The perfect complement to an online survey, focus groups provide the opportunity for a face-to-face discussion with a representative sample of your customers. This means that the more statistically-led results of a survey can be coloured by lots of additional context. The best focus groups are run by experienced moderators to ensure that the most information and feedback possible is gleamed from the various customer groups in attendance.
  3. Interviews
    Individual interviews are a great method of market research to capture in depth customer feedback on a particular issue. Telephone interviews tend to be more cost effective, but these can also be performed face-to-face.

So never forget that your customers are your most precious assets: listening to them, reacting to them, and looking after them inevitably means keeping them for longer.