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.

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