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As You Like It

As You Like It

Where There's a Will There's a Customer

Be warned: pandering to the whim of the customer will only offer an enterprise benefit if the business itself is in good shape. Good relations with customers will not rescue an ailing company, but they can make a good company great.

Boston Consulting Group senior vice president George Stalk believes fancy marketing and coddling the customer can only benefit a business when it already has a sustainable competitive advantage. "The game being played in today's global marketplace is hardball. Companies that fail to recognize that fact or simply lack the requisite killer instinct will soon find themselves on the sidelines," Stalk says.

Last October he and co-author Rob Lachenauer published their book Hardball, which says that companies need to remain obsessed with making their company successful where success is measured in profits, growth and market share. While customer service is an important part of achieving growth it cannot in isolation deliver the goods.

Stephen Brown, professor of marketing research at the University of Ulster, agrees. In a recent interview published in Boss magazine, Brown noted that while marketing executives were happy to "chant the mantra" about being customer-centric, if everyone did it then there would be no competitive edge.

While companies such as Bunnings, Myer and Taxis Combined believe there is competitive edge in being one of the first to adopt this customer-focused approach, Brown is not sure that alone is enough or, perhaps, even too much of a supposedly good thing. Long term he wondered whether customers might actually get sick of being too close to their vendors. "The traditional marketing approach advocates servility, pandering, abasement, oily obsequiousness and what have you. We're creeps basically," he stated.

"We peddle an unattractive mix of pseudo empathy, pretend intimacy and fake friendship. I suspect most customers yearn for the days when purchasing a bar of soap didn't mean entering into a lifetime value relationship."

Interface Value

When Remo's bricks and mortar store collapsed, the company reached out to its loyal customers online - and is now reaping the benefits

Sydney-based retailer Remo has been one long adventure in customer interfaces. The concept store was set up on Sydney's busy Oxford Street by Remo Giuffre in 1988, and until 1995 was very much a bricks and mortar business supplemented by a catalogue.

Although it was a traditional retail model, Giuffre tweaked it even then. The products were high quality, but often quirky. The catalogue was even quirkier, and quickly became a must-have item. Giuffre fostered interaction between the store and customers, placing suggestion boxes and feedback forms in store and catalogue. Even then he was "trying to create a customer community". Formerly a lawyer with Baker & McKenzie, Giuffre had studied for an MBA at Colombia University before returning to Australia in 1987 and finding a derelict store ripe for a makeover. From then on, he says, "I became an accidental strategist, and I approached retailing as communications".

Giuffre says when he met Randy Komisar, one of the authors of The Monk and the Riddle: the education of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and explained the Remo concept, Komisar said: "It sounds like Remo was an online brand before there was an online."

By the time there was an online Remo, the store was in financial trouble, Giuffre admits. "It closed in 1995. It grew too fast. There was too much ying and not enough yang. There was a dearth of information systems and [we] had a succession of general managers that put in new systems," none of which delivered what was needed.

Giuffre headed overseas where he worked as a brand consultant until 2001; but in the back of his mind remained a notion. "If you create a network of customers then the customers buy into the brand and become increasingly loyal to the brand. When that happens you arm them with tools to spread that and evangelize the brand," he says.

The Internet facilitated it.

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