A (potential) customer wants you to respect him and what he is looking for in every step of his buying journey. He doesn’t want to be your friend, although you should treat him like one. Five questions to answer and discover how customer-centric you really are.

Words are extremely important. They can even make or break you. A word that was playing in my mind all week is ‘social’. Since the advent of “social media”, it often seems as if we believe that marketing, and by extension even society, has become more ‘social’. Don’t think so. Businesses are not social. They just realize that if they don’t listen better and engage in more authentic customer interactions, they are in trouble.

Another word I thought about a lot this week is ‘friend’. There is no universal definition of friendship, everyone experiences it in a different way and distinctive degrees. In a social media and network context, we use the word ‘friend’ a lot, too much in fact.

I don’t know about you, but I think friendship is something very personal, valuable and if you think about it, marvelous and rather exceptional really. Today, the words ‘friend’ and ‘friendship’ seem to be somewhat devalued.

A customer wants respect: you’re not the center of the universe

The ‘consumer’, ‘customer’, ‘social connection’, email subscriber or website visitor does not want to be your friend. And you are not his, despite what some social media pundits and practitioners claim.

OK, sometimes you can be friends with a customer but that is an exceptional and personal matter. A friend is someone you visit sometimes on a lazy Sunday morning. You can share your sorrows with him. In fact: he will be asking how you – really –are sometimes. You pass some of your private time with friends. You invite them to your birthday. There are so many activities that indicate a friendship. And usually they have absolutely nothing to do with business relationships, let alone relationships between brands and people.

A customer, in the broadest sense (a social media connection, client, prospect, follower, fan, subscriber or even an employee), wants one thing: respect for what he needs and wants to achieve.

Respect is not something you can measure with, say, Google Analytics, so the concept is too vague. Let me translate it in some examples and questions later.

First, some thoughts about respect and the essence of it for businesses. Respect in business is basically an unconditional and complete reversal of the vision you have always had and that departed from what you, as a company or a marketer, wanted to tell. However, you should realize yourself every single day that you are not the center of the universe, but your customer is. Indeed, I’m talking about true customer-centricity but in a further reaching sense than you might think. It is about people-centricity, human needs and values as I wrote earlier this week. It’s also about the way you are customer-centric in practice, instead of words. And, according to me, there is nearly no – I repeat, no – organization that fully implemented customer-centricity and customer respect, though some are doing well.

Enough said, time for evidence, examples and hopefully some inspiration.

Loyal customers and brand advocates are important to companies. A decent marketer will know why. We invest heavily in the “creation” of loyal customers and “fans”. Why? Because it’s good for our business. Now, turn the advocacy thing upside down: how much effort do you take to have ‘customer advocates’? How much do you involve your customers in processes to improve the customer experience and more? How frequently do you ask people what they think you should do? Do you have someone in your organization that watches over the interests of the customer across all divisions like a pit bull, such as a Chief Customer Officer or someone who truly acts as a customer advocate? I bet you pay a thousand times more attention to the “generation” of brand advocates.

The irony is that having customer advocates, will result in a better customer service and experience, and automatically generates brand advocates this way. Investing in brand advocacy programs is not about advertising or communication, it is a matter of acting: striving for customer excellence. Forget brand advocates for a while and look at ways to put your customers really in the center. That is respect.

How is your company organized and structured?

An organization that really wants to be customer focused, can only do so if the silos in communication and even organizational structure are eliminated. We still think and work too much in terms of campaigns, divisions, programs and products. If we truly want to put the customer and his journey first, a reorganization is inevitable.

Customer interactions (and what we call campaigns) should be much more organized around people, as do organizational structures. Can you claim you do that? How does your organigram look like? Do you have customer advocates in your board room that call the shots and say “wait a minute folks, we’re not the center of the universe”. If your customers “sell” you, why wouldn’t you “sell them”, right?

How do you help your customers save time?

The customer does not want to be your friend. He wants to perform a task and achieve something as quickly and efficiently as possible. He has a need. Time is a very scarce and precious good nowadays. However, look at the average corporate website. We are still beaten over the head with Flash intros, unnecessary bells and whistles and ‘content’ that appears to have been made just to make life of visitors difficult and to anger them.

Or think about all the campaigns that send people to online destinations where they first have to look until they are wasted (if not long gone) before they find what you promised them in your call to action. Even worse: think about all the unsolicited messages and interruptions that waste their precious time. We invest heavily in nifty looking sites because we like how we look ourselves. Because we believe that we need to show visitors how professional, funny, cool, and so on we are. Guess what? People do not give a damn about that. They want the functionality that helps them. Period.

Why do you think Google still has that same good old simplistic look and feel? What applies to websites, also applies to other online ‘properties’ and interaction channels. Make sure it works for your customers first. Only results count, not the frills. Show some respect!

What do you tell?

We like to talk so much about our company and our activities. Look at our websites. The latest press releases take space on our homepages, along with a word of welcome by the CEO, a beautiful picture of our headquarters and a lot of content about ourselves. Well, I have news for you: your (future) customer doesn’t care at all.

Of course, it is important for other ‘target groups’ to find some of these content elements, but we still look too much into what WE want to tell instead of simply saying what our customers want to know, creating all sorts of disturbing elements that people really couldn’t care about less. They don’t visit your website or Facebook page for the sake of it. They don’t subscribe to your newsletters because they like the color of your eyes. They only want what they need.

They want you to listen to what they are saying, not vice versa. Respect that.

How much effort do you put in improving the customer experience?

Look at your online marketing budget: without a doubt, the main focus will be on generating traffic and communicating (about what you do). How much do you spend on improving conversions (and thus by definition the customer experience)? I bet it’s a fraction of the budgets for reach and traffic.

In fact, according to Bryan Eisenberg, for every 95USD businesses spend on generating traffic, they only spend 1 (yes, one) on conversion optimization. How much do you spend on content that people want as compared to content YOU think you have to create? How much do you spend on listening, in comparison to ‘talking’?

The customer experience, in which content, usability and conversion play a key role, are still very poorly treated. Go and see how much you spend on customer service and compare that with your efforts just to have fans on Facebook. How hard do you try to put the customer and his needs at the center of the marketing universe? Really? Check how streetwise you are and ‘go out on the proverbial street’.

Forget traffic, beautiful pictures, nifty Flash intros, funny but irrelevant campaigns, what you have to say, acquiring lots of brand advocates and your beautiful self for a while and focus on what your customers really want. I bet it’s anything but being your friend!

Yes, I know. Relationships and branding are important. Your CEO really wants a colorful site that says how cool he or his business is, you need to fill the pipeline, and you are judged by irrelevant quantitative rather than qualitative data.

However, no matter how you look at it: your CEO above all wants results. Focusing on the customer is the “conditio sine qua non” to achieve just that.

So, show some respect! R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Sing it.

PS: if the customer doesn’t want to be your friend, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat him as one.