Recognizing Your Customer’s Purpose is Key to Growth

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Growth strategies that are purpose-led, customer-centric, experience-driven, data/AI-enabled, and technology-scaled require new mindsets far more than new toolsets or skillsets. This transformation — of culture, operations, and outcomes — begins with a broader consideration of three levels of customer purpose. First, big-P purpose describes the company’s role in the world. Second, medium-P purpose depicts its role in the lives of customers. Finally, small-p encompasses all the intents, needs, questions, or desired outcomes that might compel a customer to engage your company. The author offers four ways to define, design, and deliver purpose-led experiences.

Many organizations spent 2020 scrambling to catch up on decades-old trends, such as working from home, online commerce, and virtual events. What had long been a priority had suddenly become the priority, and too many businesses found themselves unprepared. As things open up in 2021, other pre-pandemic trends are revealing their importance to post-pandemic success, including purpose, customer experience, and their combined role in driving growth.

It now seems every month a company previously known for dispassionate dedication to profit and efficiency launches a new and emotive purpose statement. Though these meticulously crafted declarations are on-trend with stakeholder capitalism, companies that don’t go beyond inspiring oohs and aahs of solidarity among customers, employees, and shareholders may be setting themselves up for a negative backlash — and missing their most significant transformational growth opportunity.

Besides being laudable and increasingly necessary, traditional approaches to profit through purpose — such as Patagonia’s 1% for the planet and Toms Shoes’ buy-a-pair-give-a-pair — have proven to be a good place to start for many. Consider Bank of the West, a subsidiary of BNP Paribas (full disclosure: both Bank of the West and BNP Paribas are Accenture clients). In 2018, the leadership team committed to un-funding industries like fracking, coal, arctic drilling, and tobacco; prioritized funding of renewable energy; and directly connected their financial products to specific causes. In the eight months that followed, according to company CMO Ben Stuart, they saw new customer growth of 37% — the strongest in their history — and sustained growth of 25% or greater.

But to fully harness purpose-fueled growth, it’s important to consider purpose more broadly than adopting social or environmental causes, sustainability practices, or pithy purpose statements. Companies significantly outperform competitors on growth, profitability, differentiation, category leadership, and long-term loyalty of customers and employees by considering three levels of purpose — company, brand, and customer purpose — and then optimizing their products, people, processes, policies, technology, operations, and metrics to deliver experiences aligned with those purposes. Here’s how to start.

Consider Three Levels of Purpose

Big-P Purpose (Company)

Big-P purpose describes the company’s role in the world. Communications giant Verizon’s purpose is, “We create the networks that move the world forward.” (Verizon is also an Accenture client.) These nine words describe not just what Verizon does, but why they do it. Employees can see the higher impact of their work, and customers can see a reason to choose Verizon.

Company purposes best galvanize customers when the stated purpose reflects one the company shares with them, not just what the company does for them. For example, my firm, Accenture’s, purpose is “to deliver on the promise of technology and human ingenuity.” This describes what our people and clients do together every day. It helps guide the decisions and actions of millions of employees (ours and our clients’) around the globe.

Medium-P Purpose (Brand)

Whereas big-P purpose depicts a company’s role in the world, medium-P purpose depicts its role in the lives of customers. Companies with only one brand may opt for company and brand purpose to be one and the same. Or they may opt to have distinct company and brand purposes, especially if they have multiple divisions serving different customer needs.

For example, Kimberly-Clark (also an Accenture client) has a distinct purpose for Huggies, its baby diaper brand: “Helping to navigate the unknowns of babyhood.” This statement perfectly reflects the unmet, perhaps unarticulated, needs of Huggies’ customers, which go beyond just diapers. And with this statement, first-time parents might feel Huggies understands them, leading to their confidence in — and ultimately choosing — Huggies. But this purpose would not fit Kimberly-Clark’s other brands like Kleenex, Cottonelle, Depends, or Kotex because those brands play a different role in the lives of customers.

Importantly, purpose statements like those above that elevate a company’s motives also elevate customer expectations. Purposes stated are promises made. So if a company doesn’t change how it operates to align with its stated purpose, it leaves itself vulnerable to accusations of virtue-signaling, green-washing, or generally being full of it if their actions don’t live up to their words. And with the velocity and reach of social media, company leaders can find themselves fighting a PR firestorm before they even know what caused it.

Many have learned this the hard way, including airlines, banks, drug companies, retailers, and social media companies themselves. Not only did their share prices and revenue suffer — which could be made up in future quarters — they also lost customer trust, brand equity, credibility, and future revenue potential, which might never be fully regained. Such injuries might have been avoided if those companies better aligned their practices and policies with their purposes and promises.

Small-P Purpose (Customer)

Despite its name, small-p purpose has by far the biggest impact on business performance and market leadership. Customer purposes are all the intents, needs, questions, or desired outcomes that might compel a customer to engage your company. Think anything that starts with something like, “I need…,” “I want…,” “How can I…,” or “Can you…”

These many needs comprise your customer purpose portfolio. It’s more important that teams have a deep understanding of your customer purpose portfolio than they do of your company’s product portfolio. Why? Because every time customers achieve their purpose, they generate value for whichever company enabled them to do so. That value may be in the form of revenue, share of spend, loyalty, advocacy, lifetime value, etc.

Every purpose in your customer purpose portfolio is the endpoint of a modern customer journey. Every purpose is the thing around which an experience is designed. Every purpose reflects an outcome that, every time it’s achieved by a customer, generates value for your business. A growing number of companies measure how well they’re enabling customers to achieve purposes — and increasing performance on business KPIs as a result — using Customer Performance Indicators (CPIs).

Define, Design, and Deliver Purpose-Led Experiences

Like purpose, another poorly defined business trend of rapidly growing importance is customer experience. Ask most leaders to describe what that means, and odds are “look and feel” will be mentioned. But experience isn’t how websites or apps or stores look and feel; experience is how customers react and feel when pursuing a purpose important to them.

If the company has done a good job of understanding a customer purpose and is making it easy for them to achieve it, customers will experience something like excitement, anticipation, joy, confidence, peace of mind, or satisfaction. If the company is not making it easy for customers to achieve their purpose, they’ll experience something like confusion, frustration, exasperation, or anger.

The veneer of pixels applied across digital touchpoints or printed on physical items — no matter how pretty — has little influence on what customers experience. What counts is whether customers can easily achieve their intended purpose.

Because your organization’s growth and success ultimately rely on customers achieving their purposes, start by understanding what matters most to them — in the world, in their lives, and in the specific context of what you provide — using exploratory ethnographic research (individual open-ended discussions, observation sessions, or customer journaling). Insights from that research will inform the creation of your company purpose, brand purpose, customer purpose portfolio, and CPIs, as well as new products and experiences.

Come Up with and Prioritize New Experience Concepts

Use the customer purpose portfolio you identified through research to come up with new experience concepts that enable customers to achieve their priority purposes. Generate as many ideas as possible, deferring judgement until you have at least 20–100 concepts to consider. Evaluate each individually based on potential impact for customers (CPIs) and for your business (KPIs).

Then identify the capabilities or dependencies each concept requires (data, technical, operational, organizational, regulatory, etc.) relative to your company’s current state. Many concepts will rely on the same capabilities or dependencies. So analyze the collective customer/business impact and the cost/complexity of realizing multiple concepts with shared capabilities/dependencies in order to prioritize them. (The most innovative and valuable concepts are often the most difficult or expensive; considering them with others that share the same dependencies helps rationalize the business case for them all.)

This generates several important outputs, including:

  • New customer journeys designed around customer purpose, which are differentiated by the experience concepts they include.
  • A future-state experience blueprint, a master view that synthesizes your new customer journeys, top experience concepts, required capabilities, CPI/KPI impact, and other key attributes all in the context of a future customer lifecycle aligned to customer purpose and business value.
  • A staged investment and realization plan that provides a roadmap of when each concept and capability will be implemented (that balances impact and costs) and optimizes how internal groups across functions will orchestrate work over time to iteratively realize the future state.

These and related artifacts help focus employees and investments on what matters most to customers and the business. They enable initial value to be generated quickly and then successively each quarter as new capabilities and concepts are launched. This continually increases company differentiation and value generation — for customers, shareholders, communities, and any causes with which you’re aligned.

Align Employee Roles and Goals

The job of every team and employee and how their day-to-day work aligns with your stated purposes should be documented, communicated, and reflected in training, ongoing operating practices, and policies. Teams and employees should also be accountable for one or more metrics that reflect how their work has contributed to the realization of those purposes (CPIs can help here).

While employees often bristle at rigidly defined job descriptions or having their performance measured, seeing their work as something more than generating company profits or their own paycheck provides a greater sense of meaning that impacts employee retention and customer perceptions, as well as metrics like satisfaction, loyalty, and lifetime value.

Assemble Teams to Deliver on Customer Purposes

Organizing work by function (marketing, sales, service, etc.) or channels (web, email, search, stores, call centers, etc.) will get in the way of success. Instead, assemble teams around specific customer purposes or expressive customer segments. Have people from product marketing (potentially from multiple products that align to the same customer purpose or segment), sales, and service join experience designers and developers; content architects and authors; experts in digital media, email, and ecommerce; and representatives from other areas like stores or third-party distribution to operate as a single team.

Each cross-functional team owns the outcome represented by the purpose/customer around which they’ve aligned and is accountable for the relevant CPIs and KPIs. They develop a deep expertise in the purpose and customer segment(s) that share it and the similarities and differences among them. Teams define customer journeys that transcend channels and organizational boundaries as needed. They collaborate using agile methods to design, build, operate, and optimize experiences and content to enable as many customers as possible to complete their journeys and achieve their purpose — generating value for the business.

Transform Operations for Delivering New Experiences

Most company operations are optimized for efficiency, which often causes friction with customers or inhibits employees from delivering better experiences — all to the detriment of growth. You’ll need to rewire operating processes and technology platforms to scale your systems’ and employees’ ability to deliver the experiences on your blueprint.

Use data and artificial intelligence to tailor and personalize journeys and experiences to each customer’s preferences at scale. Accelerate progress and reduce cost through “headless” technology architectures and cloud platforms. So rather than being optimized for efficiency at the expense of growth, you’ll be optimized for growth as efficiently as possible.

Growth strategies that are purpose-led, customer-centric, experience-driven, data/AI-enabled, and technology-scaled require new mindsets far more than new toolsets or skillsets. But this transformation — of culture, operations, and outcomes — begins with a broader consideration of purpose. One that focuses not only on why you do business, but how. When you do that, customers will be happy to be your growth engine.

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