Reading: Marketing and Customer Relationships

Why Customers Matter

Marketing exists to help organizations understand, reach, and deliver value to their customers. For this reason, the customer is considered the cornerstone of marketing.

With this in mind, what is likely to happen when an organization doesn’t understand or pay attention to what its customers want? What if an organization doesn’t even really understand who its customers are?

One of the world’s best-known brands, Coca-Cola, provides a high-profile example of misunderstanding customer “wants.”  In the following video, Roberto Goizueta—in his only on-camera interview on this topic—recounts the disastrous launch of New Coke in 1985 and describes the lessons the company learned. Goizueta was chairman, director, and chief executive officer of the Coca-Cola Company from August 1980 until his death in October 1997.

Customer Relationship Management: A Strategic Imperative

We have stated that the central purpose of marketing is to help organizations identify, satisfy, and retain their customers. These three activities lay the groundwork for what has become a strategic imperative in modern marketing: customer relationship management.

To a student of marketing in the digital age, the idea of relationship building between customers and companies may seem obvious and commonplace. It certainly is a natural outgrowth of the marketing concept, which orients entire organizations around understanding and addressing customer needs. But only in recent decades has technology made it possible for companies to capture and utilize information about their customers to such a great extent and in such meaningful ways. The Internet and digital social media have created new platforms for customers and product providers to find and communicate with one another. As a result, there are more tools now than ever before to help companies create, maintain, and manage customer relationships.

Maximizing Customer Lifetime Value

Central to these developments is the concept of customer lifetime value. Customer lifetime value predicts how much profit is associated with a customer during the course of their lifetime relationship with a company.[1] One-time customers usually have a relatively low customer lifetime value, while frequent, loyal, repeat-customers typically have a high customer lifetime value.

How do companies develop strong, ongoing relationships with customers who are likely to have a high customer lifetime value? Through marketing, of course.

Marketing applies a customer-oriented mindset and, through particular marketing activities, tries to make initial contact with customers and move them through various stages of the relationship—all with the goal of increasing lifetime customer value. These activities are summarized in the table below.

Relationship Stage Typical Marketing Activities
Meeting and Getting Acquainted
  • Find desirable target customers, including those likely to deliver a high customer lifetime value
  • Understand what these customers want
  • Build awareness and demand for what you offer
  • Capture new business
Providing a Satisfying Experience
  • Measure and improve customer satisfaction
  • Track how customers’ needs and wants evolve
  • Develop customer confidence, trust, and goodwill
  • Demonstrate and communicate competitive advantage
  • Monitor and counter competitive forces
Sustain a Committed Relationship
  • Convert contacts into loyal repeat customers, rather than one-time customers
  • Anticipate and respond to evolving needs
  • Deepen relationships, expand reach of and reliance on what you offer

Another benefit of effective customer relationship management is that it reduces the cost of business and increases profitability. As a rule, winning a new customer’s business takes significantly more time, effort, and marketing resources than it does to renew or expand business with an existing customer.

Customer Relationship As Competitive Advantage

A woman wearing a cocktail dress and heels.

As the global marketplace provides more and more choices for consumers, relationships can become a primary driver of why a customer chooses one company over others (or chooses none at all). When customers feel satisfaction with and affinity for a specific company or product, it simplifies their buying choices.

For example, why might a woman shopping for a cocktail dress choose to go to Nordstrom rather than Macy’s or Dillard’s, or pick from an army of online stores? Possibly because she prefers the selection of dresses at Nordstrom and the store’s atmosphere. It’s much more likely, though, that thanks to Nordstrom’s practices, this shopper has a relationship with an attentive sales associate who has helped her find great outfits and accessories in the past. She also knows about the store’s customer-friendly return policy, which might come in handy if she needs to return something.

A company like Nordstrom delivers such satisfactory experiences that its customers return again and again. A consistently positive customer experience matures into a relationship in which the customer becomes increasingly receptive to the company and its products. Over time, the customer relationship gives Nordstrom a competitive advantage over other traditional department stores and online retailers.

When Customers Become Your Best Marketing Tool

Customer testimonials and recommendations have always been powerful marketing tools. They often work to persuade new customers to give something a try. In today’s digital media landscape there is unprecedented opportunity for companies to engage customers as credible advocates. When organizations invest in building strong customer relationships, these activities become particularly fruitful.

For example, service providers like restaurateurs, physical therapists, and dentists frequently ask regular patrons and patients to write reviews about their real-life experiences on popular recommendation sites like Yelp and Google+. Product providers do the same on sites like Amazon and Although companies risk getting a bad review, they usually gain more by harnessing the credible voices and authentic experiences of customers they have served. In this process they also gain invaluable feedback about what’s working or not working for their customers. Using this input, they can retool their products or approach to better match what customers want and improve business over time.


Additionally, smart marketers know that when people take a public stance on a product or issue, they tend to become more committed to that position. Thus, customer relationship management can become a virtuous cycle. As customers have more exposure and positive interaction with a company and its products, they want to become more deeply engaged, and they are more likely to become vocal evangelists who share their opinions publicly. Customers become an active part of a marketing engine that generates new business and retains loyal customers for repeat business and increased customer lifetime value.