How Marketing Can Better Sense and Respond to Customer Needs

March 16, 2021
Contributor: Rama Ramaswami

Marketing functions that cultivate two key aspects of adaptability — foresight and flexible planning — are better positioned to sense and respond to rapidly changing customer needs.

In a recent Gartner survey, 90% of marketing leaders agreed that the marketing function needs to be more adaptive to shifts in customer needs, but many struggle to achieve that adaptability — which requires marketers to deliberately modify current capabilities in pursuit of strategic loyalty objectives. 

At present, 66% of marketing leaders say their marketing function struggles to meet customer demands — which is especially troubling given that 87% say they expect shifts in customer needs to become more commonplace in the next two years.

In this environment, adaptability provides the quickness and flexibility needed to capture new opportunities while maintaining the rigor and long-term outlook of strategic commitment. “But the most adaptable marketers don’t do different things; they do things differently,” says Cassandra Nordlund, Director, Advisory, Gartner. “In particular, they listen differently and they plan differently.”

Customer Needs are Shifting

How marketers can proactively adapt to shifting customer needs and expectations

An adaptable marketing function drives more customer satisfaction

Marketing functions that are adaptable are likely to see stronger customer satisfaction (CSAT) and retention. Among organizations in the top quartile of adaptability, 87% of marketing leaders report increases in CSAT. Only 43% say the same among those in the bottom quartile of adaptability.

Marketing functions need customer foresight and flexible planning

To cultivate adaptability, marketing leaders who manage loyalty and customer relationships need to focus on two critical activities — listening and planning — to sense and respond to changing customer preferences and needs.

No. 1. Generate customer foresight

Forward-looking customer insight identifies durable changes in customer needs and applies them to existing and potential customers. To generate customer foresight:

  • Diversify data inputs. During disruption, traditional behavioral and attitudinal customer data may not be reliable enough to capture fluctuating consumer preferences or model future customer behavior. Consider secondary sources such as voice of the employee/frontline staff, domain experts and customer advisory boards.
  • Pressure test behavioral and attitudinal shifts. Some changes that occur in response to disruption are more likely to stick than others. For example, if changes in customer behavior seem to be an acceleration of a trend that began prior to disruption, it’s likely that at least some of the customers who are trying out new behaviors will not revert to their old ones.

No. 2. Implement flexible and contingent planning

Adaptive strategy has proven to be especially critical during the disruption of COVID-19 and remains so. Marketing leaders must continually reexamine changes in customer needs and shift existing resources and develop key capabilities to capitalize on those needs. 

These actions are key when switching to a flexible and contingent planning model:

  • Resegment customers based on evolving needs. Especially during periods of uncertainty, revisit segmentation more often to account for changes in customer needs, product fit, channel fit and content fit.
  • Conduct customer-focused scenario planning. Adaptable companies’ scenario planning goes beyond forecasting impact on business results; it identifies how customer needs will change under different circumstances and the marketing capabilities essential to serve those new needs.
  • Switch to ongoing, zero-based project prioritization. Start with a blank slate. Justify every project anew instead of trying to pare down an existing list of projects. Starting from zero creates a requirement to retest and validate assumptions, providing a prism through which to reallocate resources effectively.

Cultivating adaptability is key to remaining competitive in an environment of rapidly shifting customer needs. By changing how you listen to customers and plan for evolving customer preferences, the marketing function can find opportunities to grow the business even in the most challenging times.

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