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August 11, 2009

Who are your best customers?

Here's a conversation I often have with marketers:

Josh: Who are your best customers?

Marketer: Women with a child under 4. [Or "People with assets of at least $1 million." Or some such.]

Josh: No, I really mean "Who are your best customers?" What are their names?

Marketer: [No response.]

If you're seeking word of mouth, you should know who your best customers are . . . by name. You should be feeding them previews of new products, asking their opinion of features you're considering, and finding out how they think to build marketing copy. You should get testimonials from them. And you should provide places where can submit their own opinions, and others can see it -- ratings and reviews, Facebook pages, community forums, or whatever it takes.

Now, consider this. Some of your best customers are those who had a problem . . . but you reached out and found them and fixed it. There is no one more enthusiastic than a friend who used to hate you.

Are you reaching out like this? @comcastcares is.

Or do you still think about customers by the thousands, and not individually?

What if you could reach out to them individually, but do it efficiently? I ought to write a book about that.


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Brian Hayashi

Once you embrace thinking of your customers as clientele (which Rodeo Drive retailers have been doing in Beverly Hills for decades), lots of things become possible.

For example, how much money is lost in product returns? Best Buy was one of the leaders when it resorted to "firing" bad customers who used fraudulent measures to return merchandise. Embracing clientele marketing opens the doors for online RMAs: instead of using the store (and all of its limitations) as the staging area for product returns, Return Material Authorizations enable smart retailers to provide different sets of rules to customer returns, maximizing loyalty without getting screwed.

The modern TV age was enabled via the cue tone, which provided a system for massive distribution and coordination of television programming across hundreds and then thousands of affiliates. Like the cue tone, Twitter provides an early glimpse at an automated future for the coordination of people, places and things.

Rob Fuggetta

Josh, you are so right about this. At Zuberance, we have conversations with dozens of marketers each week. When we ask marketers if they know who their most valuable customers (aka their Advocates) are, most marketers do not know. This is a significant wasted opportunity because our research shows that on average about 40% of a company's customers are highly likely to recommend them. Energizing customers starts with knowing them.

Ari Herzog

Similar dialogue I have with companies:

Me: Why do you want to create an account with X social media channel?

Co: Because we believe most of our customers use X.

Me: But have you asked them? All of them?

Co: No.

Until companies start treating their customers as names and not numbers, social media (or customer service) will continue to be driven by what-if scenarios and not proven facts by real people.


Great post. A reminder to me of the importance of referrals, especially in my business. I'll be spending my day tomorrow getting in touch with past customers and clients! Thank you.

Vickie Smith-Siculiano, PMP

A great post - I agree that if you don't know who your customers are, then you can't possibly go out and get more of them - using social media as a way to improve customer service is definitely a valuable tool, and I am thoroughly absorbed in Groundswell right now, taking in all the valuable tips you've shared. Thanks for keeping the conversation going on your blog!

Tom Cunniff

Josh, interesting post.

What tools and techniques (apart from panels and loyalty programs) would you use to identify a company's best customers, especially for CPG companies?

I'd enthusiastically agree social media has a huge role to play in high-interest categories. I've greedily picked up and shared everything I'm seeing about Iron Man 2, for example.

But in low-interest categories, I wonder if these "best customers" are willing to invest much energy in social media.

It's always dangerous to use your personal experience as an example, but... here goes.

I'm as digital as you can get, and have been since the early 1990s. Cut me and I bleed bytes.

But for many of the brands I'm loyal to, I am silently content. My wife and I have been happy users of Classico pasta sauce for almost 20 years. In that time, I have never visited their web site. Never talked about the brand in a forum (until now). And, I have absolutely no interest in doing anything with the brand but eating it.

My guess is there are a lot of loyal customers who silently love their brands. They may be lifetime users of GE lightbulbs, but are unlikely to ever shout their passion for the brand from the rooftops because they just aren't that passionate about it. The product solves a problem, and that's all.

The exception, of course, is if there's dramatic new news. But this happens so infrequently that it has little impact on day-to-day business.

You asked, "do you still think about customers by the thousands, and not individually?"

For many quotidian brands, in many ginormous categories, I think there's still a real need to think that way.

Josh Bernoff

Tom, great comment.

The best way to get people talking about your boring brand is to get them talking about their problems, not about your brand.

See http://tinyurl.com/ozo7qt


Tons of products "best customers" who would love to spread the word if they were given a chance or "helped" a little bit.

I think a lot of companies are afraid to let the consumers loose but I am personally a big fan of the idea.

Evan Hamilton

Great post, I agree 100%. But it gets tricky if your community isn't about interacting with each other, isn't about passions, isn't about events.

My community uses a piece of software...how can I really get to know them? I'd love to hear some thoughts from folks here or at http://cli.gs/TDJUG8

Basilio Bentivegna

nice argument for discussion.
for me, interesting to deepen are also the following:
- how do you think at and interact with your best customers, when you "think" you have thousands of them. What strategy do you put in place?
- in the social media landscape is the definition of best customer a one way one?
- when we want to speak to our best customer we should be very aware of who is speaking with them and the communication skills they have

it comes in my mind Peppers & Rogers"customers one-to-one"

Andrew Bell

Josh & Charlene

I've been following your blog pretty religiously for the past while. You've done some great work, and I've recently just been successful in having my entire office purchase various copies of Groundswell. (I refuse to part with mine)

I work for a professional sports team in the Northeast, and we're trying to come up with ways to incorporate social media. In additional to having a twitter feed, facebook page, fan group, do you (or anyone else) have any ideas/suggestions of how we could positively use this technology. As an example, if we've recently solidified a player trade, how could we go about sharing that news, looking for fan feedback, etc?? I appreciate any/or help.


Nick Stamoulis

Very true! Often times your best customers will always be cheerleaders for your business and they won't hesitate to give a testimonial or even speak with a potential client. but it takes time to acquire those customers.

Josh Bernoff

@Andrew Bell send me an email at jbernoff at forrester dotcom and we'll see if we can help you out?

Vishnu Veerubhotla

By opening up channels like Facebook pages and community forums, the level of engagement with your customers is still not up there. You have to constantly engage with your customers, not just enable them to converse among themselves through these channels. I love the way Starbucks addressed it with a simple combination of forums, votes & blogs to form a powerful "Idea Generator" (checkout http://mystarbucksidea.force.com/) which has the Starbucks employees constantly engaging with the customers and taking action. Starbucks launched the Mini Starbucks Card, healthy food options and reusable totes among other things from ideas generated by their loyal customers & critics. Its a case of "democracy in action" through social media !

Promotional Products

Very good point. Many times marketers know there best customer segment, but not individual customers. I know that when I go to a department store or use a special service I really appreciate when they remember me especially by name. This just shows that they truly care about my business and want me to be their customer and this makes me want to be their patron. Customers need to feel wanted and remembering their name and doing things specifically for them is a great way to make them feel special.

 Chris Baggott

"What if you could reach out to them individually, but do it efficiently?"

The right question....but the power to do this has been available for years. It's called email. Email is (or should be data driven) So many marketers however still think in terms of lists instead of data driven interactions based on time, relevancy etc...

The technology is there, it's easy and it's inexpensive. It's the will that is lacking.

Same is becoming true in Corporate Blogging. Organizing content around data instead of authors targets search and drives significantly higher engagement.


@Andrew Bell

Hi Andrew,

I noticed Josh encouraged you to reach out to him and he'd see if he could help you. If he did indeed manage to help you, I'm sure he'd take it as a massive endorsement if you could share with us a snippet on how he helped you further reach out to your community... ;-)


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