How Staples Business Advantage Shifted from Product-Centric to Customer-Centric with Influitive


Marketing teams all over the world are beginning to realize the benefits of a customer-centric approach. But this shift from product-centric to customer-centric can be harder than it looks. See how I used Influitive to turn a “cute little marketing project” into a success that helped shape our company's mindset.

The Problem With Product-Centric

In the early days of Staples Business Advantage (SBA) we, like most companies, were product-centric. Our focus was on what we were selling—copy paper, mops, buckets, keyboards, desks, etc. Our sales and marketing teams were organized by the category they sold, so they’d go out and champion whichever products they were in charge of. Our thought process was, How can I sell someone more (insert product here)? 

If you only talk about yourself, no one’s going to listen. @MaryLeslieDavis ‏@Influitive

However, we knew we couldn’t just go out and talk about what we wanted to sell. We needed to find out what was on our customers' minds—what were they thinking, their issues, and pain points. We needed to listen.

So several years ago, the marketing department at Staples Business Advantage began moving away from product-centric into a customer-centric marketing approach. We started with extensive buyer persona research, in which we asked prospects and customers what happens in their day. How did they deal with things such as My boss just said to order a whole bunch of new chairs! Or, we need more coffee in the breakroom! We wanted to know how they went about fulfilling that need, what research they did, how did they select a vendor and more. The focus was on them and how they think, work and feel.

What we found out through the research was that sometimes they might think about, say, buying a new chair and printer at the same time because they had a new hire. In the product-centered approach, you’d have two different sales people out there pushing two different products with two separate marketing pieces. That’s not customer-centric. 

In addition to the persona research, we had done extensive database modeling and analysis to create a lifecycle strategy. My boss at the time asked me to bring together the strategic plans for all of the different marketing groups—product marketing, field marketing, communications, database marketing, and on and on—and it was when I collated everything and put up notes on my whiteboard, by persona and lifecycle, that I had an "aha" moment. 

The research had shown us definitively that customers don’t learn about products and services from ads, sales collateral and emails, but from word of mouth and peer networking. Of course, we knew that! (How did you hear about the last new restaurant you tried?!) As I stared up at all the initiatives my hard-working colleagues had proposed, I realized not one of our efforts addressed how customers actually made buying decisions—through word of mouth.

#Customers don’t learn about products/services from ads. #WOM #PeerMarketing @MaryLeslieDavis ‏@Influitive

I knew this gap was huge, and my inner journalist kicked in. I researched ways we could build a strategy that would engage our customers as people and motivate them to share their good experiences with Staples Business Advantage with friends and colleagues. 

This theme of connecting on a human level has been present throughout my life. From my early days as a sports journalist during an internship in high school interviewing athletes to direct marketing for Bloomingdale’s, I’ve always been interested in people—and customers are actually just human beings after all!

Shifting an Institutional Mindset

Through my research I discovered Influitive, a gamification platform that fit perfectly with what I wanted. It would give me a forum to listen to our customers, talk to them directly, and discover the how and why behind their purchasing decisions (which isn’t typically a luxury marketing departments have). And it gave me a mechanism to, quite simply, have our happy customers talk about us by giving us testimonials and sharing our content on their social networks. So we signed up, engaged our customers, and were off to the races. Easy, right? It's never that simple.

To rally support for this potential new Influitive advocacy program, I talked to many sales and marketing stakeholders. One of our VPs, after listening to my plans— and as if listening to a child rant about a mean teacher—said, “Interesting, that's very nice, but it will never work.” Deflating. Even my own staff thought it was a waste of my time. A fellow marketing colleague said no one would take it seriously, "It's just a cute little project." Great.

The thing is, I’m a woman of action. I’d rather do something than nothing, and up to this point, we were doing nothing to drive word of mouth and peer referrals. We were stuck in our old way of thinking, and I wanted to push our teams to think in a progressive customer-centric way. I didn’t know if it was going to work, but I needed to try something.

Sales people talk to customers all the time, but those of us who sit in corporate headquarters (the ivory tower) talk to customers maybe once or twice a year. I wanted to find an avenue where we could talk to customers on a daily basis without doing some big fancy research project that’s put on the shelf after you finish it. And then I wanted them to talk about us!

Launching a Pilot Program 

I convinced my boss to give me a little money to run a pilot program despite her reservations. To start, we utilized our persona work and segmented our AdvocateHub into three different experiences for three different personas. We personalized our email invites based on these personas, and on a quiet day in August, we launched our advocacy program.

In the first two days we had 100 customers join the Hub—about ninety-nine more than I expected. That’s when we knew we were on to something. Every day after that I shared some little tidbit of a customer insight to my marketing and sales colleagues. After the fifth, tenth, thirtieth email, the same colleagues who thought this would never work began to see the huge potential. We became the most popular department in Staples, because people started to understand how engaging with customers helps us to better serve them, and, ultimately, close more deals. 

To date, this “little” project has garnered over 120,000 "acts of advocacy" including 1100+ customer testimonials and 2700+ social shares from our 5300+ Advocates. We've had customers post 700+ topics on the discussion board with 27,000+ replies/likes.

Now we have a real-time view of what our customers are thinking and what’s top of mind. This equips us to create valuable case studies and whitepapers that speak directly to their needs. These insights allow us to drive strategy for the whole company.

This shift to customer-centric is evident in every single facet of Staples. Now we hear our CEO and our President talking about personas, life cycle stages, and advocacy. This just goes to show that large-scale organizational change is possible, and it doesn’t have to come from the top down. So if you have a big crazy goal, don’t get discouraged when you run into the naysayers and the inevitable roadblocks. Think differently, move forward, and share your passion with whomever will listen. Share your results. Real change happens through action—and it's not always easy.