I was speak­ing on a panel address­ing dig­i­tal expe­ri­ence, Web con­tent man­age­ment, and mar­ket­ing when I real­ized that there was one glar­ing waste of mar­ket­ing dol­lars we still need to talk about: the product-centric mar­ket­ing we con­tinue to do while claim­ing we’re customer-centric. In other words, putting prod­uct first in our mar­ket­ing efforts, rather than respond­ing to the customer’s indi­vid­ual needs and context.

Product-centric mar­ket­ing hap­pens all the time under the guise of customer-centric meth­ods, such as tar­get­ing. Here’s an exam­ple: One con­fer­ence attendee raised his hand and shared an eye-opening story from his own life. He had recently been shop­ping for a drill for a home improve­ment project. He checked out two major home improve­ment retail­ers, both in per­son and online. He went back and forth between the two sites, brows­ing prod­ucts, then nar­rowed his choices and started com­par­ing nitty-gritty drill spec­i­fi­ca­tions and fea­tures. He finally made his deci­sion, went into one store, and bought the drill he wanted.

You’d think that was the end of a pretty unevent­ful story, but his inter­ac­tions with the home improve­ment stores didn’t stop there. He con­tin­ued to receive emails and retar­geted ads from both stores try­ing to sell him a drill. Many brands would believe this was a customer-centric tac­tic. But one email per­fectly cap­tured the prob­lem: It offered him a dis­count on the very same drill he had just bought.

Ongo­ing brand inter­ac­tions should be a great thing. We want cus­tomers to stay engaged well beyond the pur­chase phase, find­ing mul­ti­ple touch points with the brand and grow­ing in loy­alty. But the con­tin­ued inter­ac­tions this man expe­ri­enced turned him off. He was annoyed and frus­trated and went on to pub­licly joke about the brand’s inept tar­get­ing tac­tics. In his case, it would have more pos­i­tive to not hear from the stores at all.

Dig­i­tal mar­keters talk about being customer-centric all the time. Most of us tout a phi­los­o­phy of rel­e­vant, per­son­al­ized, respon­sive con­tent, and design. So why do major com­pa­nies with siz­able mar­ket­ing bud­gets still fail when it comes to know­ing and under­stand­ing their indi­vid­ual customers?

I can think of two rea­sons: 1) We don’t accu­rately under­stand the data, and 2) we don’t ask our cus­tomers for sim­ple, yet pow­er­ful information.

Get an Accu­rate and Use­ful View of Cus­tomer Data

To make the leap from a product-centric to a customer-centric approach, the home improve­ment retailer could widen its focus to see beyond the drill to the customer’s con­text. Stop focus­ing on what the cus­tomer wants (i.e., the drill) and start focus­ing on why. Why is the vis­i­tor search­ing for a drill? What projects is your vis­i­tor work­ing on, and how can you help that indi­vid­ual accom­plish his or her goals? Ask­ing why cre­ates an open-ended dia­logue with the cus­tomer, and leads you to think about what addi­tional prod­ucts, ser­vices, or infor­ma­tion you might have to offer. A con­ve­nient and use­ful online shop­ping expe­ri­ence can keep cus­tomers from leav­ing your site.

Ask your­self what infor­ma­tion you need to be truly help­ful to the shop­per, then put your data to use. The key is to orga­nize data around unique vis­i­tors, not pages or links. When cus­tomers enter your site, they can begin to accu­mu­late data in their own cus­tomer pro­files. Their own data clus­ters may be com­posed of the basics, such as age, gen­der, indus­try, and loca­tion, and they may also con­tain past pur­chases, brows­ing his­tory, and other rel­e­vant behav­iors. As they move through your site, they will also gather real-time behav­ioral data that your team can ana­lyze to under­stand their most imme­di­ate needs.

Customer-centric data leads to bet­ter tar­geted mar­ket­ing. Whether it’s gath­ered from third-party sources, mea­sur­ing behav­ior and brows­ing paths, or reg­is­tra­tion data, the impor­tant part is that you take an inte­grated, three-dimensional view of the human behind the pro­file. For exam­ple, a home improve­ment store might have seen that our drill shop­per was also look­ing at shop lights, peg­boards, and hooks, and deduced that he was work­ing on an orga­ni­za­tional unit for his work­space. It could then send him video tuto­ri­als on do-it-yourself work­space orga­ni­za­tion tech­niques, sug­gest some func­tional, mul­ti­pur­pose shelves and brack­ets, or high­light a tool­box that just went on sale.

With customer-centric data, the home improve­ment out­let could have fol­lowed up with its cus­tomer with­out even men­tion­ing a drill.

Ask Your Cus­tomers for Sim­ple yet Pow­er­ful Information

We can become so fix­ated on the data and pre­dic­tive tech­nol­ogy that we never think to ask our cus­tomers for the infor­ma­tion that’s use­ful to us. The home improve­ment store couldn’t tell whether or not the cus­tomer had pur­chased a drill, so it made an assump­tion. Unfor­tu­nately, it was the wrong one.

What if the store had emailed him with a ques­tion like, “Are you still inter­ested in this drill?” or “Have you already pur­chased a drill?” The answer would give the store some con­crete infor­ma­tion to inform the next inter­ac­tion. And instead of guess­ing, it might ask, “Are you work­ing on a par­tic­u­lar project?” “Would you like to speak to a rep­re­sen­ta­tive about addi­tional sup­plies?” “Do you want to view some of our tuto­ri­als, or see projects other cus­tomers have com­pleted?” Or how about an old clas­sic, “Is there any­thing else we can do for you?”

Some­times it is appro­pri­ate to sim­ply ask. It helps you avoid a faux pas and lets your cus­tomer know you’re avail­able, even if they choose not to respond.

Show (Don’t Tell) Them You’re Customer-Centric

Every brand says they are customer-centric, but it’s all noise to the con­sumer until you show it in tan­gi­ble, expe­ri­en­tial ways. Enable your­self to take a more per­sonal, prac­ti­cal approach to cus­tomer engage­ment by hom­ing in on the most use­ful data, orga­niz­ing it around the indi­vid­ual, and remem­ber­ing to ask for infor­ma­tion when you need it.