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Why Your Marketing Department Might Need an Unlikely Hero Remember "The Phantom Tollbooth"? Maybe you need a change agent like Milo.

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Random House

In the classic children's book, The Phantom Tollbooth, the characters are split between the cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis -- one populated by people who think words are what really matters, and the other, by people who see numbers as the most important thing.

Related: 5 Cool Things You Can Do With Customer Feedback

Milo, the unlikely child hero, eventually helps the kingdom realize the importance of achieving a balance between the two.

So, a question for you: When it comes to marketing, where does your company's balance lie? Here, I'm talking about replacing the names "Dictionopolis" and "Digitopolis" with, on one side, traditional marketing methods, and, on the other, what I like to call "experiential customer obsession.""

In other words, in your marketing department, do you have someone willing to leave behind traditional behind-the-desk marketing methods and go out to meet customers on their turf, to experience firsthand how those customers are uncovering invaluable insights and delivering breakthrough innovations?

Do you have an in-house Milo?

What data tells us about our customers

Of course, any in-house Milo would first have to immerse himself (or herself) in available customer data.

The data we receive about our potential customers gets more precise every year, thanks to the immense innovation in digital capabilities. (You probably have the same experience.) But all that data is only as good as how expertly it's used. As marketing expert Renee Yeager pointed out, You'll have an undeniable advantage if you know what your customer needs better and faster than your competitor does.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask When Collecting Customer Data

Your customer, meanwhile, may be seeing pain points that he or she can't identify, doesn't focus on or simply accepts as unfixable. These harder-to-get insights can be extremely valuable. But for us to help the customer find those insights, we have to literally be next to that customer, observing, talking and experiencing that world rather than just crunching numbers or reviewing spreadsheets.

Data tends to either describe past behavior, or help predict future behavior based on previously identified patterns. It is usually rooted in history, and for marketers, typically on what a customer can report or describe. For example, data might show a retailer that a potential female customer, based on her demographics and recent internet searches, is likely to be buying diapers soon. The data then enables that retailer to send the right promotional email at the right time.

But that same data might miss her other needs – perhaps the emotional, physical or spiritual ones.

To get to these deeper, contextual insights, you need that term I use: "experiential customer obsession." This entails engaging your customer's reality in a way that enables you to see, feel and truly understand what hovers out beyond the data. These insights require shared experiences and even physical proximity with your customers. It requires you to stand next to them, and with them, to see and identify these pain points and opportunities they may not even know exist.

And, really, if you stop to think about how so many successful companies have been conceived by identifying needs based on personal experiences, experiential customer obsession isn't a far-fetched idea at all.

In 1971, for example, Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman was having breakfast with his wife when it dawned on him that the grooves in the waffle iron she was using would approximate an excellent mold for a better running shoe. Today, the company works with world-class athletes and trainers to continue to push the boundaries of its innovation. In a 2015 Wall Street Journal interview, CEO Mark Parker noted that a guiding principal at Nike is, "Be a sponge."

As Parker continued, "Soak in everything around you. Observing is really the fuel to innovating, ultimately."

Here at Abbott, we revamped our portable blood analyzer used in operating and emergency rooms to be slimmer, sleeker and more sophisticated than previous prototypes. That was all well and good. But it wasn't until we observed the device in use that we realized it sometimes slipped from nurses' hands when they tucked this hand-held tool under their arms in the midst of a chaotic emergency environment.

So, we redesigned the device to stay lodged in place as the nurses buzzed around the ER or operating room; that redesign enabled them to stay focused on the details that really matter for patients.

If you look at where so many entrepreneurs have started, it seems to me that the real question is, why don't we all incorporate more experiential learning opportunities into our standard business practices? For that matter, at what point did we stop?

But it's never too late. To help foster "experiential customer obsession" inside your organization, here are few places to start:

1. Move away. From the desk.

Spending time with people who are going to be using your products is what leads to insights that otherwise might never arise. You may observe issues or opportunities you hadn't thought of.

Just because your customers can't communicate a particular challenge or need in an online survey or focus group doesn't mean it's not there, begging for a solution. That's the kind of thing that leads to a competitive advantage. Yes, it requires a significant time commitment, but the benefits of walking in your customers' daily footsteps can be a game-changer. It helps build empathy for their challenges, demonstrates your knowledge and creates trust.

2. Transform expectations.

Whether you're gathering customer insights through traditional methods or experiential ones, question the expectations of those customers, of yourself and of the expanding world of solutions within your control.

We could all easily chalk up a slippery diagnostic tool to clumsiness in a chaotic environment, or a problem too small to care about in a room full of real emergencies. Train your eyes and ears to question all pieces of the puzzle.

3. Give people who think differently a seat at the table.

We all have talented people who go by the book. We also all have creative people who tend to see things from an unexpected angle, and it can be easy to write them off when their ideas don't simply check all the usual boxes.

Know who these off-the-beaten-path creatives are on your team, ensure they have a voice, listen actively and openly and find ways to generate dialogue around their ideas.

4. Encourage a disruptive mindset.

It's easy for all of us to fall into a routine of safe and, presumably, effective patterns and practices. But when teams are empowered to rally against age-old processes, they can help unlock new ideas and growth opportunities. Not every process and protocol needs to be challenged, but encourage and incentivize your teams to explore a fresh and new perspective, as opposed to conducting "business as usual."

Related: Free Webinar: Unlock the Power of Customer Data

If it's true that your customers get to know you best when they interact with you, the reverse is also true: You get to know your customers best when you interact with them. Get out there, roll your sleeves up, challenge your organizational assumptions and invest in customer experiences throughout the product development and marketing chain.

In short, get your "Milo" on.

Elaine Leavenworth

SVP, Chief Marketing & External Affairs Officer, Abbott

Elaine Leavenworth is Abbott's senior vice president, chief marketing and external affairs officer. Previously, she served as the company's vice president, government affairs. She joined Abbott in 1991 and held various management positions of increasing responsibility in the company's Nutrition, International, and Health Systems divisions. She was elected a corporate officer in July of 1999. 


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