Complete the following statement with one word: “Marketing is _____________.” My university professor told the class during our graduating year. After two years of majoring in marketing management, we thought we knew the answer: “Price! Place! Product! Promotion! Advertising! Branding!” were some of the answers we gave to complete his statement. A resounding “No!” was the reply given by our professor.

“Perception! Marketing is a game of perceptions,” he continued. How customers perceive our products or services and how our customers perceive us becomes reality for them (customers). And often times, perceptions are very hard to change. However, when we engage our customers with excellent customer service, perceptions can be changed dramatically!

Let me take you through some marketing insights I’ve seen over the years and by walking you through these insights let us learn what can be done to create the right perception and “Go for Gold!” because, truth be told, silver is not enough.

Marketing Insight 1

Good marketing is product driven, while great marketing is customer focused.

What differentiates a good marketing strategy from a great one? Why do some campaigns soar high while others crash land right after take off?

Most often, great and effective campaigns and strategies have one goal in mind: The Customer.

Establish Customer Share

Al Ries and Jack Trout assert in their book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, “It’s better to be first in the mind than to be first in the marketplace.”–The Law of the Mind. It is better to be at the top of your prospect or client’s mind than first in the marketplace.

Further, it is more cost-effective to get existing customers to buy more of your product offerings than it will cost to get new customers and try to gain more market share.

I remember a time when I was called in to meet the VP for Sales of Sony Erickson, at the time of the meeting, they had already launched the P800 model, which was a phone with a camera plus much more.

The VP handed me the phone and asked me to explore the features of the phone and play with it a bit. It was, at that time, technologically superior to the recently launched Nokia camera phone. He asked me, “Do you think that phone is technologically superior?” Almost instantly I replied, “Of course! Just looking at it gives a feeling of superiority.” Looking straight into my eyes, he asks me, “Then why can’t we seem to break into Nokia’s market share?” I immediately replied, “Sir, Nokia cares about being first in the minds of the customers and, as a result of doing so, they have created for themselves market share that has rendered Motorola irrelevant competition”

Being first in the mind is everything in marketing. Being first into the marketplace is important only to the extent that it allows you to get into the mind first. Our role as agents is to constantly find ways to be Top of Mind with our clients; our company’s role is to create Top of Market campaigns.

Clear Focus

Creating Top of Mind is not easy, but it all begins with the right focus (goal, target). Good marketing focuses too much on what products are capable of doing. Take the example of a PC. It will always tell you how fast it can process data and how much information it can store–feature after feature after feature. In fact, when you open a laptop PC, it is cluttered with stickers still telling you what it can do, while a Mac will let you know that you can do all that and more–only simpler. Mac focuses on how the customer wants things to be simpler, less cluttered, and easy to navigate and work through.

Great brands have focused their marketing campaigns and strategies on how they, not only satisfy customer’s needs, but more so address or create what customer’s want. We must keep in mind that ultimately it is our customers who will determine quality standards.

There are three levels of Customer Service excellence:

Level 1: Customer Satisfaction

At this level, we ought to deliver on clear expectations. So we must be clear and level off the expectations of our customers to us and us to them. If, at this level, we cannot fulfill or even meet up to it, then we have failed from the start. In fact, customer satisfaction is no longer an option, it’s a given.

In 2008 I had the privilege of working with Dr. Eduardo Roberto, or “Doc Ned” in the Philippines. At the time of pursuing his doctoral degree in Applied Marketing Research, he became the understudy and apprentice of Philip Kotler. He was sharing his insights on marketing and customer-driven research that he and his team conducted. The conclusion of his study was that the customer today is sitting in the driver’s seat, and they are the ones driving the standards of quality.

Further, he gave an analogy: Sitting in the driver’s seat there are only two ways to see the road–either through the windshield or through the rearview mirror. The same is true for customers. They can either see us through the windshield (the product or service innovators) or through the rearview mirror (those who have been rendered irrelevant).

Level 2: Customer Delight

This is the level were we can deliver the unexpected–that which will delight our customers and, in a way, pleasantly surprise them.

As professionals, this now becomes the basic requirement of our every transaction. In fact, if we cannot delight our customers (at the very least), then we should rethink about them doing business with us again. How we delight our customers sets us apart.

Take Away Be an innovator and be seen through the windshield–it is your competitive advantage. I’ve asked people the first thing that comes to mind when I say, “life insurance” and I get the same answers (perception): “insurance, coverage, premiums, security.” Many people forget to see the “life” in life insurance when working with customers goes beyond premiums and coverage amounts. Get to know them.

Take Action Create learning sessions that pertain to life issues like work-life balance, stress management, or health and fitness. For your plan holders (free of charge), this creates value for them and promotes goodwill for you.

Level 3: Customer Wow!

Our ability to wow our client defines our relationship with them and enables us to create partners for life. Creating that wow experience does not have to be expensive, but it has to be the best of what we do have.

In addition, creating that experience will require creativity on our part, so we must be prepared to stretch ourselves out of our comfort zones. Those of us who can creatively and constantly wow our customers will be the ones who will win by that narrow margin, and that narrow margin will be able to fetch a grand prize far bigger than that of the first runner-up. This is the challenge to us all. Because in the end, the main beneficiary of the wow experience shall be our customers.

In order to create that customer wow, it has to start with the right focus and the right message.

Another law from The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing is the Law of Focus: “The most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect’s mind.”

The key is to own a word that best describes you: “Connectivity” is Nokia, “Overnight” is FedEx, “Slow” is Heinz. Or, better yet, turn your brand into a household name: Coke for soda, Xerox for photocopying, Kodak for pictures.

Most successful campaigns that have applied the Law of Focus own a word that has more to do with how customers will feel when they buy the product or avail of the service, only to a lesser degree product features:

o Nokia empowers with “connectivity.”

o FedEx assures you by delivering “overnight.”

o Heinz ketchup wets your appetite with “slow.”

o Adidas basketball welcome you into a “brotherhood.”

o Manny Pacquiao would beat up then eat up his opponents as the “Pacman.”

o Michael Jordan would fly and perform spectacular dunks as his “Airness.”

Take Away If you can describe who you are or your products to your prospects in 25 words, then you’re 24 words too long.

It’s okay to have more information handy. Datasheets and whitepapers are great once people get interested–they will probably want all the detail you can provide. But for first impressions, you should tell the world only one thing about yourself or your product.

Take Action You can use two to three words as long as you are not trying to sneak in extra ideas. Usually, you need only one word. But which word to pick?

o Pick a reasonably common word out of the dictionary.

o It should be a word that everybody understands. Don’t invent a new word that nobody has ever heard. Only H?agen-Dazs had the marketing genius to do that.

o Don’t try to associate your product with a word in the customer’s mind if that word is already associated with your competitor. ?

o Don’t pick the word cheap or any of its synonyms. Very few businesses can thrive while making low price their primary message. Wal-Mart is one of those businesses. ?

o Don’t pick the word quality unless you can prove that you care about quality a lot more than everybody else.

Marketing Insight 2

Outstanding marketing and marketers are governed by disciplines.

A pro-athlete or an Olympian understands that in order for him to win the gold in any competition, discipline is a key ingredient to his or her success. I believe no one goes into any competition wanting to train just to be able to win the silver medal. Every athlete knows he needs to “beat” his body in order to succeed in his sport of choice.

In the same manner, no one gets into business or chooses a career just to get by. When one selects a career, profession, or business that he is passionate about, he gets into it to succeed and, inevitably, he disciplines himself to work hard to support the dream lifestyle or achieve his goals in life.

Marketing is not exempt from certain disciplines to develop winning marketing campaigns. Certain disciplines are foundational:

1. Constantly invest time only on qualified leads.

Don’t allow your pipeline to go dry. Constantly keep customers flowing through your pipeline. While not all qualified leads will buy immediately, a good practice would be to divide the income you received from a closed sale by the total number of presentations before the said closed sale. This gives you a sense of being compensated for every presentation you make and motivates you to keep going. Example: If you earned $10,000 in commissions on your tenth presentation, then divide $10,000 by ten presentations and you will be compensated $1,000 per presentation.

2. Continue to listen to your customers.

USAA is a $38-billion insurance and financial services organization that provides coverage to 2.6 million military personnel and their families. At USAA responding to letters and mailing surveys isn’t good enough. The company has an ongoing dialogue with their customers. Its automated ECHO program (Every Customer Has Opportunity) records every customer comment, written or phoned in, good or bad, and the people at USAA immediately do something about it!<e>1

Be accessible to your customers. Make sure that your customers have easy access to you, and make them feel that they can be open enough with you for honest feedback, whether good or bad. Then you will know their needs and wants. Brian Tracy talks about the Mafia Offer, which has two components: Core Needs (customer’s) and Core Products or Services (company’s). It is important to note that in product development, always consider first the core needs of customers. This can be determined by knowing your customer and then matching that need with your core product or service.

A simple example is Starbucks, which seems to have mastered and practiced the Mafia Offer knowingly or unknowingly. While they do have their standard coffee drinks, customers who frequent a particular store are known by their baristas through their customized coffee.

Marketing Insight 3

Leveraging on professional branding is key in today’s race for success.

Often we see high achievers make a name for themselves through awards, rewards, and citations only within their respective organizations. However, they have very little impact to the world outside of their organizations except maybe for the few loyal customers who know them personally.

Think about it. We are all walking advertisements for huge companies: From the Nike swoosh or the Adidas three stripes on your runners, to the Lacoste, Polo, or Tommy Hilfiger logo on the left chest of your shirt. Even the Starbucks lady on your coffee cup and the famous Levi’s back pocket stitch and rivet are brands, not to mention the Rolex, Breitling, or Oris on your wrist, and the LV printed on your leather bag, all the way to the snowcapped Mont Blanc pen that we offer customers to sign their final contracts with. Notice this, the Citibank check with which the customer pays his or her premiums is also a brand or the American Express, Mastercard, or Visa that pays for the lunch or dinner meeting is still a brand. We’re all about Brands! Brands! Brands!

Tom Peters wrote, “Big companies understand the importance of brands. Today in the age of the individual, you have to be your own brand. You are the CEO of Me Inc. You have to be a brand like Nike, General Motors, Dell, or Microsoft. Instead of being your job title or job description or your resume, you must be a professional brand. When you are a brand, you are recognized for who you are.”

Examples of people who are a brand are Michel Jordon, Manny Pacquiao, Warren Buffet, Peter Drucker, Dr. John Maxwell, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry King, and Oprah Winfrey to name a few. Setting yourself apart from peers and competition through personal branding can grow your business exponentially and boost your career dramatically.

Looking at all successful personal brands, they have at least four things in common:

1. Competence

Personalities who have become known brands are also known to be someone in a specific field of endeavor.

Warren Buffet is known as the world’s greatest investor. Therefore, you can never hear him talk about anything else other than business investments and wealth generation because this is his area of competence.

Dr. John Maxwell will always talk about leadership because that is what he has devoted his life to–equipping and developing leaders in different spheres. In fact, Dr. Maxwell told us one time in a leaders’ meeting, “I don’t practice what I preach; I just preach what I practice.” Interesting statement. Personality brands speak more by their achievements and actions. They let their life do the talking.

2. Consistency

These people have identified their daily disciplines, which will give them consistent high-level performance. They strive for excellence in everything they do and never settle for good performance only.

Michael Jordan lead his team to two three-peat championships 1990-91, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1995-96, 1996-97, and 1997-98. The only season the Bulls didn’t win a championship was when Jordan was in retirement. Winning six championships with one team had a lot to do with excellent performance for “His Airness.” In all championships Jordan won the MVP award. That’s consistency.

3. Communication

One message is communicated clearly to everyone and that is why these people are known to be the authority in their particular field. No matter where you go or whom you speak to, Bill Gates will always be know as a technopreneur, and his name is synonymous with Microsoft.

The message of “Who am I?” or “What do I stand for?” has to be established and communicated clearly so people are not confused. It’s worse if your customers are confused about what you represent.

4. Connection

More than communication is the ability to connect with your customers (loyal or potential). Communication is about the exchange of information while connection allows people to get to know each other better. Paul Spiegelman suggests in his online article for Entrepreneur:

o Develop a true partnership. Establish an open dialogue with clients. Engaging in an open dialogue promotes teamwork and collaboration and ensures everyone is working to help accomplish the customer’s goals.

o Establish a web of influence. Develop multiple relationships throughout your customers’ organizations.

o Listen and respond. Stop talking and really listen to your customers. When a situation arises, respond quickly and be thorough.

o Be accountable. Put a process in place to address issues and ensure accountability for the resolution.

We can all agree on the importance of customer service. Yet, even with a great product or service, we can’t assume customers are happy. Make it your responsibility to beat their expectations–be proactive instead of reactive. If you don’t, another company will, and your customers will become their customers.<e>2

Take Away While branding sets you apart and allows you some leverage to boost your career, it is also not as simple as it looks. However, if done properly, professional branding will work for you. The following are components of professional branding:

A brand

o communicates your distinctive traits and qualities.

o is easy to remember and to be recognized.

o earns the respect and the trust of others.

o creates a value to your clients.

o builds your competitive advantage.

o influences others.

Marketing Insight 4

Develop and sustain T.R.U.S.T. over time.

The customer plays different roles to us. While we may be led to believe that they merely want coverage or security for the future, it may really be more than that. For this reason we should be able to build trust with our customers over time.

Let’s get to understand their role better:

1. Customers pay the bills (literally and figuratively).

2. Customers serve as our best critics (both positive and negative).

3. Customers are our advertisers (Word Of Mouth Advertising Now (W.O.M.A.N.)).

4. Customers determine quality (the driver’s seat).

The customer will remain the customer. How we view them and our biases toward them will set the tone for our interaction with them during the next transaction. We can’t change our customers; we can only influence them (positively or negatively). Eventually, the change will have to come from within.

Customer Facts

o Dissatisfied customers tell an average of 10 other people about their bad experience.

o Satisfied customers tell an average of about 5 other people about their positive experience.

o It costs 10 times more money to attract a new customer than it takes to keep an existing one.

o If 20 customers are dissatisfied with your service, 19 of them won’t bother to tell you. They’ll just take their business elsewhere.

o In many service industries, quality service distinguishes one company from the other.

o The first 30 seconds of a call or meeting sets the tone for the remainder of the contact. The last 30 seconds is crucial to establishing rapport.

o Providing high quality service can help protect and grow your business.

o Customers are willing to pay more to receive better service.

o 95 percent of dissatisfied customers will be willing to do business again if their complaint is acted upon well and quickly. In fact, it is the best opportunity to show our value as an organization and gain their loyalty.

Customer Wow! has become a trend in marketing and customer services today. In the past people would sell and service customers based on product features and benefits. Today customers are now looking for that sensory experience.

Truth to tell, any type of experience becomes more meaningful when trust is established. I have developed an acronym for the word trust and over the years I have turned this acronym into a five-way test.

T is for Truthful

Truthful means being open and honest about the information that is given to the customer, no hidden agenda, no need to read between the lines. As a policy holder myself, I expect my agent to be truthful with me because I understand that I am entrusting my hard-earned money to an institution that will take care of my future. If my agent can’t be honest with the small details, then there is no way she can be trusted when my family will need my policy.

R is for Reliable

One brand of watch is known to be most reliable of all and that is the brand Rolex. The Rolex was on the wrist of Chuck Yaeger when he broke the speed of sound–the Rolex kept on telling the right time. It was also on the wrist of Sir Edmund Hillary when he made it to the top of Mount Everest. Amidst the freezing weather, the Rolex kept telling the right time. There are many watches that may keep working in different critical conditions, but the real question is, “Will it keep telling the right time?”

Similarly, during different critical conditions and adverse situations of our customers, will we still be reliable and do the right things beyond transactions and premiums? It’s the personal touch and personal care that customers need.

U is for Unified

Corporate integrity–what we promise to our customers–is what our respective companies should be able to deliver. Otherwise we will have no unity from within.

The movie Miracle is a movie about the U.S. hockey team composed of young students who want to defeat the world champions, the Russian team. Kurt Russell stars as U.S. Coach Herb Brooks. Upon seeing his team’s lackluster performance, he says to them, “When you put on that jersey and come to work, always remember, the front of your jersey is more important than the name behind it!” In the eyes of your customers, you really bear one name, your team name. At the end of the day, whatever you do is a reflection of your company’s values.

S is for Standards

I remember a saying, “It is better to aim for perfection and miss the mark than to aim for imperfection and hit it all the time.” When setting standards of customer service, set them high and if you happen to miss the mark, then at least you’re still above average.

One of the highest standards of customer service I’ve experienced that many have followed after is Starbucks–from the greetings to customizing your own coffee concoction. It’s no wonder that if they don’t get the order right, customers are all too willing and easy to forgive.

And finally, the last:

T is for Time-Tested

Trust is something that is gained over time and through a proven track record that we are worthy of trust. Put simply, “Trust is established daily, not in a day.” The more consistent our excellent service to our customers becomes on a daily basis, the deeper the foundation of trust we dig. In addition, trust can be established even in crisis situations, too. At a time when a customer is in a crisis, the one who can be part of the solution for him or her will be the one to earn his or her trust.

In the final analysis, we are selling a promise to take care of the family of our customers in an uneventful situation, we are essentially asking our customers to trust us with their hard-earned money and that we will take care of it and make it grow for them until the time that they shall need it.

In real estate it is “location, location, location.” In teamwork it’s “communication, communication, communication.” For insurance it is “Trust! Trust! Trust!” This is probably the single most important word to establish between you and your customer because if you do, and I know most of you have done it, you can improve and increase your business and propel your career further.

In summary, the four insights I’ve shared with you are the following:

Good marketing is product driven, while great marketing is customer focused.

Outstanding marketing and marketers are governed by disciplines.

Leveraging on professional branding is key in today’s race for success.

Develop and Sustain T.R.U.S.T. over time.

Be customer focused by developing sound marketing disciplines while creating your personal branding as you continue to earn, and sustain, the trust of your customers.

If you take some time to practice these insights and apply them to your profession or career, you will be on your way to achieving the “Gold” because, for you and your customers, silver is not enough.

Thank you very much!

This is a published version of a focus session presented by Remigio Gerardo S. Abello at the 2011 MDRT annual meeting in Atlanta. Abello is president of Business Words, Pasig City, Philippines.