This week I have mostly been getting angry with a phrase.

“In 2014, we will continue to educate our customers on how to save energy”

“We’re educating our customers on the benefits of buying our local produce”

Yes, the phrase is “educating our customers”, and I’m angry because I think it’s a terrible goal, yet I’ve come across it in a surprising number of corporate responsibility reports.

Why do I hate it so? Because at its best, it’s indicative of sloppy thinking. At its worst, it’s disrespectful of a company’s most important stakeholders – its customers.

The second of these is simple, so let’s deal with it first. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I maintain that, as an adult, I’m responsible for my own learning. I feel vaguely insulted by the notion that a brand is setting out to “educate” me, and I’ll wager other customers would feel the same if they thought this was happening to them.

But that’s a side issue. My main objection to the use of “educating customers” as a goal is that although it may sound good, it’s just not specific enough to be meaningful. As a reader of your report, I’m left with several unanswered questions:

  1. Why is it that you need to educate your customers? (i.e. what do you need them to think or do differently?)
  2. How are you going to do it?
  3. And how will you know when you’ve succeeded?

Let’s say you’ve recently launched an eco-friendly version of a best-selling product, but it hasn’t been as popular as you expected. Should you set a goal to “educate customers about our eco-friendly products”?

Your research shows that customers don’t trust the quality of ‘eco’ products and are reluctant to take a chance on yours. So we can answer question 1: you want to change customers’ minds about the quality of the product (thinking differently) – and then you want them to buy it (doing differently).

The answer to the question 2 will depend on the type of product and the insights you’ve gathered from customers. It might be prudent to carry out live demonstrations, gather testimonials or endorsement, distribute free samples, or start a campaign on social media.

As for question 3, that’s easy: you’ll know when your strategy has worked because you’ll start to sell more of the eco-friendly product.

It’s not rocket science, and it feels slightly patronising just to type out this example. But I’ve read so many woolly goals on customer engagement recently that I think the point is worth labouring: none of the above is adequately covered by the phrase “we will educate customers about our eco-friendly products”.

As with all goals, the key is to unleash your inner toddler and ask “why?” as many times as you need to before you’re clear on what you’re trying to do, and how you’re going to measure it.

So my plea to the writers of CR reports is this: please steer clear of the “e”-word if you possibly can, and try instead to describe what you’re really trying to achieve. I guarantee it will be more specific, more powerful, and more respectful of your customers.

Image: Crayons by Danielle Kellogg is licensed under CC BY 2.0