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Peter Fader

Customer Care

What Do You Really Know About Your Customer Base?

In an excerpt from The Customer-Base Audit, the authors ask critical questions

Published: Thursday, August 17, 2023 - 11:03

As an organizational leader, you’ll be very familiar with your company’s key financial statements and monthly management reports. But what do you really know about the people who pull out their wallets and pay for your products and services? In The Customer-Base Audit: The First Step on the Journey to Customer Centricity (Wharton School Press, 2022), experts Peter Fader, Bruce Hardie, and Michael Ross start you on the path toward really understanding your customers’ buying behavior as well as the health of your overall customer base.

In this excerpt from their book, the authors ask some challenging questions and make the argument that to answer them, you’ll need to conduct your own customer-base audit.

As a senior executive, you have spent countless hours discussing budgets and expenditures. Focusing on the top line of the income statement, you’ll probably have looked at sales by product line and geography. Quite possibly you have looked at product profitability as part of a product line rationalization exercise.

But how much time have you spent considering that these revenues are generated by customers paying for your products and services? What do you really know about this primary source of your organization’s (inward) operating cash flow?

Consider the following questions:
• How many customers does your firm have? How many customers do you really have?
• How do these customers differ in terms of their value to the firm? For example, how many one-time buyers did you have last year? • How many customers accounted for half of your revenue last year?
• How many customers who bought your products last year can be expected to buy from you this year?
• What proportion of your sales this past year came from new vs. existing customers?
• On average, what proportion of your new customers have made a second purchase within three months of their first-ever purchase? Within six months? A year?
• Which of your products are most appealing to your most valuable customers? 

If you’re struggling to answer these questions, you are in good company. In our experience, most senior executives are unable to do so, regardless of whether their organization is primarily B2B or B2C, sells products or services, or is a for-profit or nonprofit.

Why is this the case? It reflects a fundamental failing in the reporting systems and structures of most organizations. It reflects a failure to have a true customer-centric mindset, even by many firms that claim to be customer-centric.

We’re not interested in the demographic profile of our customers. Were not interested in their attitudes. Were interested in understanding their actual buying behavior.

We expect that some people, lurking in various parts of your organization, are conducting the analyses that can provide the answers to some of these questions. But it’s rare to find them being pulled together in one place, let alone making their way to senior management. Without such a basic understanding of the foundations of the behavior of the firm’s primary source of (inward) operating cash flow, how can you be expected to ask the right questions and make informed decisions?

Enter the customer-base audit

We believe that there’s a set of fundamental analyses that are foundational for any executive wanting to gain an understanding of the health of their organization’s revenue and profit streams and the feasibility of their growth plans.

We call this the customer-base audit.

A customer-base audit is a systematic review of the buying behavior of a firm’s customers, using data captured by its transaction systems. The objective is to provide an understanding of how customers differ in their buying behavior and how their buying behavior evolves over time.

It’s important to note that we’re not talking about “knowing the customer” through the lens of traditional market research. We’re not interested in the demographic profile of our customers. We’re not interested in their attitudes. We’re interested in understanding their actual buying behavior.

Who would want to look at the results of such an audit?
• Senior management teams and boards that recognize that to really understand the top line, they need to examine it through the lens of the customer
• A CEO who wishes to embark on a journey of making the firm truly customer-centric
• Groups undertaking a due-diligence exercise as part of an M&A or investment decision that recognize the importance of understanding the health of the firm’s customer base
• A CMO wanting to get a team to take a more data-based approach in their planning and decision making

A nonprofit supported by charitable donations may want to perform the associated analyses for both its financial supporters and the people it serves through its charitable activities. The same applies to two-sided markets, such as Airbnb, that often view both their constituencies (e.g., hosts and guests) as different kinds of customers.

Time and again, we’ve seen how insights derived from these descriptive analyses can have a profound effect on a firm’s operations.

We agree with the definition of analytics as “the discipline that applies logic and mathematics to data to provide insights for making better decisions.” It’s common to speak of four types of analytics capabilities: descriptive (“What is currently happening or has happened?”); diagnostic (“Why did it happen?”); predictive (“What will happen?”); and prescriptive (“What should we do?”).

The general view among business leaders is that firms progress from simple (descriptive) to sophisticated (prescriptive) analytics engagement, with the derived value increasing as the firm adopts more sophisticated tools. We disagree with this view. At a time when everyone is caught up in the hype surrounding machine learning and artificial intelligence, and believing that “sophisticated equals better,” the customer-base audit is unashamedly descriptive (and, to a much lesser extent, diagnostic) in its approach. Time and again, we’ve seen how the insights derived from these descriptive analyses can have a profound effect on a firm’s operations.

A customer-base audit is all about gaining a fundamental understanding of the behavior of the firm’s customers. It involves a serious engagement with the fact that revenue is generated by customers pulling out their wallets and paying for a firm’s products and services, and that any attempt to think about a firm’s revenue streams must start with a good understanding of how customers differ and how their behavior evolves over time.

Why are firms not undertaking the types of analyses that would answer these questions on a more systematic basis? There are several reasons. First, most managers haven’t been exposed to such analyses. If you have never been exposed to the idea of thinking about the customer as the unit of analysis when analyzing your firm’s revenues and profits, how can you be expected to ask such questions in the first place?

Another reason for failing to undertake these types of analyses is technological barriers, be they real or imagined: “We don’t have the data,” or “It’s too difficult to get the data.” That may have been true 20 years ago, but now it’s a rather hollow excuse. (If you are working in a digitally native company, you have no excuse!)

Excerpted from The Customer-Base Audit: The First Step on the Journey to Customer Centricity, by Peter Fader, Bruce Hardie, and Michael Ross. Reprinted by permission of Wharton School Press.


About The Author

Peter Fader’s picture

Peter Fader

Peter Fader is a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is an expert in behavior data analysis and marketing/shopping trends, with additional applied expertise in customer-base analysis.