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Why not mystery-shop your company? When I started in the marketing department at Grainger in the 1990s, we hired “mystery shoppers” to see what it was like to be a customer of our competitors — and us! They’d send in recordings of their phone calls; we’d laugh when our competitors did a bad job and cringe when it was one of our branches. It was amazingly insightful; if you aren’t doing this today, you should consider it.
However, you don’t need to hire anyone to get some real-time experience with being a customer of your company; you can buy from your website occasionally.
I once interviewed for a job as the senior vice president of marketing for a distributor. Before meeting with the CEO, I went on his company’s website and ordered batteries. After noting they came in a ship pack of six, I ordered four AA batteries to see what would happen. I documented the time and date I placed the order, the time and date of receipt and the price I paid. In retrospect, I should have ordered from their competitors, too!
When I sat down for the interview, I shared the information with the CEO; he was fascinated and asked me how the distribution center had handled the order. “They broke the ship pack and sent me four,” I told him.
That made him happy, and I got the job.
A No-Brainer ‘Gotcha’ Question
In my current role, I interact with many CEOs and senior executives. I like to ask them, “When was the last time you bought on your own website?” Most of the time, the individual can’t remember; sometimes, they admit they’ve never used the website. How would you answer if someone asked you this question?
There’s so much to learn about your company when you become your own customer. How easy is it to set up an account? Does your search engine work well? Is the check-out process straightforward? Do you get accurate shipping information? Is the pricing easy to understand and competitive? You get the idea.
Buying from your own website isn’t a comprehensive way of understanding what it’s like to be a customer of your company. Becoming your company’s online customer is the bare minimum you can do — but that’s the point. Even though it’s easy to do, most executives don’t make the effort.
How to Be Your Own Customer
Here are some of the excuses I’ve heard from executives who haven’t become their companies’ online customers:
People will recognize my name, and I’ll get preferential treatment. This is an easy one — ask a friend to set up an account under their name and address. Use your credit card when you check out or buy something cheap and reimburse your friend.
We only sell to businesses. When I want to buy anonymously through a distributor, I get around this by setting up an account through my LLC, which doesn’t include my name. If that won’t work for you, ask a friend who owns a business to set up an account for you to use.
We don’t sell anything I need. No problem. You can also return the product to test that process, which offers valuable insights. Or you can confide in your CFO and ask for reimbursement. Or you can suffer the small financial cost of making purchases sometimes because it’s so important it’s worth the investment.
If all else fails, contact a customer confidentially and ask if you can stop by or watch over Zoom when they place an order and experience the process. If you follow this method, make sure you’re looking at the ordering screens. Keep in touch from log-in to delivery so you get the full experience.
Your Brand Isn’t Your Marketing;
It’s Your CX
Everything about how customers define your brand happens at the points where they come into contact with your company: experiences at the counter, over the phone, online, during sales calls, etc.
The claims you make and the aspirations you set are validated or undermined by what customers experience during these interactions. The world’s finest slogan won’t placate a frustrated customer.
I’m not saying marketing isn’t important; I’m saying that part of marketing is understanding customer expectations and sentiment. You can’t do that well if you are never your own customer. Why would you invest heavily in marketing or carefully design and measure promotional campaigns without putting yourself in your customers’ shoes?
Shopping from Your Own Website is Only the Start
In addition to buying from your company online, you should sample your other channels, too. Make sales calls with your reps. If you have service counters, visit them and observe what’s happening. (When I do this, I wear a name badge identifying me as a “Trainee” so customers don’t expect me to help them.) Sit with customer service reps who take phone calls.
Many executives rationalize that they don’t have time for these activities because they have more important things to do. What’s more important than understanding what your customers experience when they interact with your company?
Buying from your own website isn’t a substitute for a broader assessment of customer experience — but it’s fast, easy and every executive can do it. Give it a try and see what you learn. At the very least, if I run into you at a conference and ask you when you last bought from your own website, you’ll have a great answer!
Ian Heller is co-founder and chief strategy officer for Distribution Strategy Group. He started his distribution career as a truck unloader at a Grainger branch and rose to vice president of marketing for the company. Ian later served in similar roles at GE Capital, Newark Electronics, Corporate Express and HD Supply. He writes, speaks and consults on technology-driven changes and disruption in the wholesale distribution industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org