Archives for November 2009

Think Like a Customer

Forget the Golden Rule
by Morgan Leu Parkhurst

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series about communicating with customers.

Treat others the way you would want to be treated. It seems ridiculous to think that one of the most common rules taught to children somehow hinders effective business communication when these children become adults. But it’s true. To be effective at communicating with customers (for example, internal audiences who buy into ideas or messages, or external audiences who buy products or services), one must turn away from this standard rule and focus instead on treating others the way they want to be treated.

Where is the problem in treating others the way we would like to be treated? It lies in the assumption that they are like us. And, in most cases, they aren’t. For example, professional communicators know why they created a message a certain way. But customers aren’t typically privy to this information. As they hear new marketing or media messages, their interpretations and assumptions are likely going to be very different than our own. We can, and often do, take the information we have as communicators for granted. Phrases such as, “Oh, the customer will know what we mean,” and “Well, this is how I would want it handled, if it were me,” are often heard during meetings as deadlines approach. However, comments like these are red flags signaling ineffective communication. When this happens, communicators need to go back to the drawing board and rethink their strategies.

Imposing our own biases on communication messages or deciding how these messages should be interpreted is a dangerous path to walk. I learned this a few years back. While talking with an insurance salesperson, I asked if the hardest part of selling life insurance was getting people to buy something for when they died. The rep shook his head, explaining that the hardest part was convincing spouses the insurance money wasn’t in place for the surviving spouse to live in luxury after the death. He illustrated how he had to drive home the points about insurance being in place to care for survivors, pay for funeral expenses and cover remaining debts. I confess, I never thought of life insurance as a tool for living the high life. Clearly, I wouldn’t have made a very effective insurance salesperson unless I took the time to understand the customer’s point of view, no matter how irrational or incorrect it sounded to me.

Keeping assumptions in check is critical to effectively thinking like a customer. While working in health care marketing, I had the privilege of sitting in on a memory-care training. We were asked what the greatest fear was for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Everyone in the room, medical professionals included, agreed it was the loss of memory—we were wrong. Ultimately, we learned the greatest fear of those with Alzheimer’s diagnoses is the loss of control. Despite having access to detailed memory-care data, we still imposed our own thoughts on another group of people. Had we created all our marketing messages around what we would want if we were patients, in spite of the seemingly logical nature of these messages, we would have been very poor communicators indeed. Our brochures, web sites, and other collateral detailing how we would help preserve a person’s memory would have missed the point entirely.

Why don’t communicators always think like the customers they reach? Many do and do it very well. For those who find it challenging, the reasons include not having enough budget to conduct market research, lack of time to get to know customers more intimately and fear of losing control of the message. By treating customers the way they want to be treated, communicators have to invest time and money in getting to know their audiences better, to push aside personal or team assumptions and to relinquish control. Senior management may also fear this shift as processes are tailored to what customers want, rather than what the company has offered in the past.

Fortunately, making the shift to focusing on what the customer wants can involve small changes. For example, while helping an HR manager plan a benefits meeting for field consultant employees, we figured out that despite our best efforts to create effective print invitations, the employees responded best to electronic communications. So we converted the print invitation into an e-mail invite. We had failed originally to treat our customers, the employees, how they wanted to be treated. In making a relatively small change, we garnered the big difference we needed in responses and meeting attendance.

Thinking like customers means we have to look at the world through their eyes. Tuning in to this mind-set is worth the time and money needed to make it work, as relationships with target audiences strengthen and communication efforts become more effective.

Part two of this series will focus on getting to know customers more intimately to make the shift in mind-set permanent, and how to do this in spite of financial or other challenges. Part three will discuss how to tie these deeper connections into what customers value.

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How to Build Social Media Audiences

by Natalie Canavor

How can you build the right following using various social media? The question is important because like it or not, as communicators, we’re expected to lead the way in our organizations’ use of social media. Natalie asked a few “early adopters” to share their best advice. All are intensive users of social media, and also teach others how to employ it.

We’re Not in Mass-Media Land Anymore
Jerry Allocca is CEO of CORE Interactive, which helps companies, universities and associations build an effective Internet presence and use social media well. Often, avoiding mistakes is the first imperative, he says.

What kind of mistakes? “No. 1 is not having a plan, but diving right in and figuring it out as you go.” While the new media should be an extension of what an organization is already doing to market itself, it takes a totally different mind-set, he observes.

“Marketing is evolving, and trying to mass-broadcast to millions of people through Twitter, for example, is totally ineffective,” Allocca says. “It’s not about blasting a message to reach everyone on 13 channels of television anymore—the landscape is changing. Online communities and social media sites are really about one-on-one conversations. So you have to start conversations.”

How? Just as you would at a networking event, he says. Ask a question that evokes a response—a curiosity-driven question. Talk about interesting things relevant to your audience and re-tweet other people’s good posts. Come with a how-can-I-help-you attitude: “This is a give-before-you-get medium,” Allocca says.

Look for conversations, preferably about a shared purpose—or even better, a passion. Or look for conversations that will interest your prospects. “Do a search using keywords and phrases,” Allocca recommends. “For example, my universe is the Internet and marketing. I love talking about the Internet and want to see what people are saying.”

See which people engage your interest. Connect with and follow them. “Hopefully they’ll follow you back,” says Allocca. Consciously provide value according to your industry, and look for themes behind your product or service. If your product is a chair, for example, it could be seen as being about comfort, and there’ll be an audience interested in that theme.

And you can best promote yourself by being yourself—“Nothing is more transparent online than phoniness. You must have personality and authenticity,” Allocca says.

It’s Always About Branding
Arthur Germain is “principal and chief brand teller” of the Communications Strategy Group, an agency that focuses on branding clients through storytelling. In counseling clients on how to leverage social media as part of their marketing mix, he notices that “people start at the wrong end—how do I use the screwdriver to take out the screw? They jump on the tool rather than what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Germain advises his social-media-wannabe clients to conduct a marketing audit first and define their objectives: to connect with customers or employees? Improve customer service? Ask, how would you like social media to help you and become part of your marketing mix? What resources are available to you to monitor the online conversations and develop sharable information?

“Then think about where the people you want to reach are participating and what you can share. What great content do you have for this community—content that is noncommercial and high value?” Germain recommends a simple online survey to determine which media are worth your time: Ask the people you want to reach which networks they are active in.

Consider practicalities in cataloging your content: In what form is it available? Can it be searched? Can it be easily shared? “The key to viral communication is that there has to be a method for sharing. The content can’t be locked, and it can’t be too big, like PowerPoint presentations or a huge PDF,” advises Germain. (Although PowerPoint presentations can be shared via, he notes). If it’s online and linkable, it’s sharable.

Germain notes that a good way to find others in your industry on Twitter is to check out who’s active on a subject by looking up hashtags (see Conversely, hashtags can help you gain followers; Germain uses them when he comments as a webinar participant, for example.

Learn what works from listening. “Notice who’s popular on Twitter—it’s not the ‘here’s-where-I-am’ people, but those who offer value. They may tweet about a neat product they saw, or a show they attended, or an article they found interesting, and give you a link.

“Try to identify information gaps for a community. Fill those needs, and you will quickly and naturally gain followers and standing,” says Germain.

His direct advice to the hesitant: “You’ve got lots to say, you just haven’t thought it through yet.” He, too, suggests working to a theme: Figure out your best content, chunk it down into little pieces and feed it out, and eventually move on to another theme.

Foster Your Personal Credibility
Adrian Miller is president of Adrian Miller Sales Training and operates Adrian’s Network, a virtual business networking community. The core message for small businesses in her view: The Internet offers access to the same playground used by very large companies. She, too, advocates acting on objectives, “Do you want to use social media to generate attendance at your events? Use it as a credibility tool, or for communication? Determine this.”

With Twitter, spend those limited number of characters very carefully, Miller advises. “People will want to read your posts only if your writing is meaningful, so link to relevant news or groundbreaking web sites and combine that with a little bit of business, and you’ll start to be recognized as a real information source. Build your credibility until someone calls and says, ‘Maybe we should do business.’”

With media like Facebook and LinkedIn, she suggests exploiting the profile potential: “The more information you can add to flesh out your profile, pointing at your expertise and intelligence, the more you can get recognized as an expert at what you do and can be a provider of knowledge and an information resource.” Post articles you’ve written, link these platforms to your blog, make a concerted effort to update your status with items that indicate your professional activities.

It’s important to control how you present yourself to your audience and your market, and to monitor what’s posted about you by others. Don’t forget photographs—Miller regularly conducts a search of Google Images to avoid professional embarrassment.

The bottom line: Like traditional media, social media demands planning, strategizing, research, and—let’s not forget—the best writing you can produce: solid, well-chosen content, optimally presented and thoroughly proofread.

Sloppy thinking and communication techniques are not the ticket in a universe where there is so much information and so many ideas to choose from.


Natalie Canavor is a business writer and workshop presenter who teaches writing-for-results. She has been a journalist, national magazine editor and communication department director, and is a two-term past president of IABC/Long Island.