Sustainability and the Customer Experience

By Kathy Miller

Your company’s values count with customers.  Ask yourself what your company stands for, in addition to making a profit.  Unless you can answer this question quickly and clearly, your company is unlikely to win the hearts of your customers.  And those companies who can connect with their customers’ emotionally are likely to keep them for the long-term. Yet, most people say that they feel no emotional connection to the brands that they buy or to the companies which produce them.

In the wake of Wall Street malfeasance and increasing concern for climate change, many of us long to support companies that are actually committed to people, planet and profits–the triple bottom line.  If your company offers us ‘green’ products, we can easily connect.   Every time we drive our hybrid automobiles or purchase locally grown vegetables, we feel like we are making a small contribution to making our world a better place.  And we associate that good feeling with your brand.

Offering ‘green’ products does attract customers.  However there are a number of other ways that companies can create strong bonds with customers based on commitments to a sustainable world.   A newly released survey shows that many of us are willing to pay more for products and services provided by socially responsible companies.  And we view environmental and employment practices as the key indicators of social responsibility. These practices include more than offering ‘green’ products.

So how can companies apply this information?  Well for starters, you can act on your commitments.  Asserting your values isn’t enough.  Live your values.  Customers don’t like flash without substance when it comes to values.  Second, raise awareness of your values-driven actions.  According to a recent survey, most of the buying public hasn’t heard much about companies’ socially responsible actions lately. Perhaps this is due to lack of activity or perhaps it is due to lack of communication. Third, engage your customers in interfacing with your company around your shared values.

According to Sue Morgan, cofounder and senior consultant of OnTrack Consulting, a customer experience consultancy, the key to connecting emotionally with customers is to provide them with opportunities to engage in two-way interaction with you.  For example:

  1. Create forums for customers to discuss issues that relate to your company’s causes.   Provide them with the chance to share their specific concerns with each other and with you. For example, My Starbuck’s Ideas website allows customers to discuss ideas pertaining to social responsibility.
  2. Engage them in dialog about energy efficiency, sustainability and carbon reduction.  Producer of sound systems, Vers Corporation initiated a dialog with its customers by offering a tree planting opportunity, matching every tree a customer planted, by planting another.
  3. Offer your customers opportunities to work with you to further your causes.  For example, Hewlett Packard offers its customers a variety of options for recycling computer products.
  4. Invite customers to participate with your company’s employees in events that support your causes.  Sponsor those events. For example, Patagonia invites its customers to join employees in listening to presentations by environmental groups at local stores.  Afterward, customers vote on which groups should receive grants from the company.

Perhaps the most important step that you can take to reach customers with common values is to empower and engage your employees.  Inspire your employees to embody your company values with customers in mind.    Remember, employees are the human face of the company.  Make them ambassadors for its causes.  At the same time, enlist all, not just sales and customer service, as champions of the customer.   They are likely to generate strategies for connecting with customers through shared ideals.

Most of us already know that ‘green is good’ in the eyes of many if not most consumers.  However, the latest surveys show that only a few companies are actually creating emotional connections with their customers around sustainability values. It is not too late to distinguish your company from the pack by committing to the triple bottom line and actively engaging your customers in assisting you.

Kathy Miller is the CEO of Miller Consultants, a firm that assists with the organizational development and the leadership of change in support of sustainable practices.

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