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3 ‘customer-obsession behaviors’ for the digital age

Mailchimp offers a playbook for 21st century innovators.

3 ‘customer-obsession behaviors’ for the digital age
[Photo: Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

It’s not all that difficult to find a spark for innovation, but it is nearly impossible to sustain it successfully. The few organizations that do share a singular factor: customer obsession. The term “obsession” signals a matchless level of focus, prioritization, and an intentionality that surpasses customer-centricity. It is a commitment to keep the customer at the center of everything.

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If you’re going to inspire and sustain meaningful customer relationships, your innovations have to resonate, even as needs and demands change. The only way to do that effectively is by setting your customer as your true and steady north. That means actively and intentionally paying attention to the signals that people are sending and shaping company culture to create value.

Mailchimp has long been the poster child for customer obsession and, not surprisingly, celebrated as one of the most innovative companies in the world. It has disrupted markets, challenged the status quo, and created new value because its management has viewed the world through the eyes of customers from day one. This obsession is the starting point and truth teller for innovation, and it permeates every layer of the organization.

The company’s recent $12 billion dollar acquisition by Intuit shows how enormous the value of customer obsession truly is. If you look at how Mailchimp has operated through the years, three fundamental customer-obsession behaviors emerge. The company consistently takes its lead from its customer, constantly shifting its culture of innovation to follow that lead.

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Nurture a customer-obsessed culture

Mailchimp cofounder and CEO Ben Chestnut grew up seeing his mother operate her hair salon out of their kitchen. Motivated by personal experience, he built a company dedicated to helping to “scale the small business out of the kitchen.” And the company has worked constantly to understand what small businesses require to do just that, developing new products and services to satisfy those needs.

Customer obsession powers everything Mailchimp does; so, as its customers have evolved over the years, so has the company’s culture of innovation. And as the organization has grown, the team has kept its eyes fixed on its central source of inspiration. Attentive, regular adjustments consistently influence how Mailchimp’s people listen, behave, and make decisions, what innovations make it to market, and how the brand shows up in the marketplace. Chestnut will tell you that he is constantly adjusting the culture of the company, and that one thing drives those changes: It is always about the customer.

Listen intentionally and aggressively to your customers

Even if you have a clearly aligned focus on your customer, you must be persistent about acting on customer feedback. It is easy to take early customer research as an enduring fact instead of persisting with your listening and acting with agility as customer needs evolve. As Mailchimp shows, persistent efforts to understand how you are performing for your customer yield tremendous results.

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Mailchimp makes sure it gets unfiltered feedback all the way to the top of its leadership. For years, cofounder Dan Kurzius regularly visited with their small business customers and would provide real-time feedback to the company. As it continued to grow, Mailchimp hired a chief customer officer to ensure they could keep a systematic focus on customers. It is also not uncommon for Mailchimp to invite customers to speak to the Mailchimp team in a town hall-type format. This pursuit of truth, and the effort to open the organization to feedback, makes everyone in the company more aware of the impacts of their work. It’s a level of closeness that has normalized vulnerability and nurtured a valuable culture of consistent adjustment, which has sustained lasting customer relationships and fed the success of the company.

Build a unique brand around the customer

From day one, the Mailchimp brand is for the founders, creators, and makers that power small businesses, which is another reason the company has connected so deeply with its customers. It has listened to the people behind the businesses to understand what they need. Most small business owners are niche product or service experts, not marketing pros. Knowing that, Mailchimp has built a brand that not only celebrates its endeavors but also fills the need for tools and content that make the marketing piece simpler.

For example, Mailchimp Presents creates podcasts, series, and films that tell stories about creators and business owners. They also acquired Courier, which publishes educational and inspirational content for entrepreneurs. These creative endeavors are part of how the company has expressed its distinct perspective and created delightful, useful, authentic touchpoints with audiences. They are not your typical marketing investments, but they are true to the creative essence of Mailchimp, and pay tribute to their small business customers through unique and useful content. They are elements of the ultimate brand connection.

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Mailchimp shows us that even multibillion-dollar brands begin with a single customer. It has thrived because it is a customer-obsessed innovation company that delivers through innovative marketing technologies. And after 20 years, it remains unapologetically obsessed with empowering its small business customers. It should come as no surprise that this small business-focused organization would be the ideal partner for Intuit, a company with a history of providing for the needs of small businesses.

By infusing the customer throughout your creative and design cycles—testing, budgeting, brand building, and culture—you join the ranks of these powerful outliers. Customer obsession is about being so intimate with your customers that they define you. At the end of the day, this obsession is what gives you your true north and empowers you to challenge the status quo and innovate with a purpose bigger than yourself.

Alex Gonzalez is the chief innovation officer for the Metro Atlanta Chamber and producer and host of the Disruptor Studio podcast leadership profile series.

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