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The Customer Speaks First

Close Up Of Young People Having Business Meeting In Office

By Colin N. Clarke, Ph.D.

Many companies barge into their annual planning efforts believing they know what the customer wants to hear and how s/he wants to be reached. Business people often LIVE in their industry category and know the business inside and out but overlook the fact that they are not the customer—although they might try to tell you they are.

Most businesses tend to zero in on tangible differentiators—features and benefits—as a means to convince customers to buy. But “bigger, better, faster and more” can only carry a business so far—it becomes too easy for competitors to match features or price. The challenge is to uncover a truer differentiation that will resonate more closely with the customer’s desires. This is where the voice of the customer comes to life and demonstrates its power in business and marketing planning.

By undertaking the right kind of customer investigation, businesses can begin to discover more emotional routes to the customer. Look at how customers view themselves when they use the product: What image do they project or portray? Do they like what they see? Discovering what appeals to the customer beyond basic product specifications provides tremendous insight.

Another area to explore is a customer’s perceived utility or benefit of using a product. Too often companies get so wrapped up in describing the product itself that customer benefit is overlooked. One basic means to begin discovery is to simply ask the customer: What would your life be like if you no longer had access to product X? Now we can begin to explore the deeper benefit to the customer.

It all starts with asking the right questions. Are you dealing with a changing business environment, assessing entry into a new market, or wanting to better understand how your brand is perceived among the competition? Here are some questions to get you started in the discovery process:

  1. Changing Business Situations
    • How will customers react to the company after an acquisition?
    • The company has experienced an unexpected decline in sales? Why?
    • What methods do customers most prefer to receive our products?
    • Where are the greatest market opportunities to diversify?
    • How are customer product preferences changing?
  2. Market Assessment (new market)
    • Who are the major competitors?
    • How do customers rank the competition?
    • Who does what, well?
    • What do customers feel is missing?
    • How will our offering be different?
  3. Brand Awareness and Perception
    • What do customers feel our brand is known for?
    • How do customers describe us?
    • How often is our brand part of the consideration set?
    • How often is our brand considered but not selected?
    • Why are customers choosing another brand over us?

These are just a few examples of how to get started with discovery on data and information that will enhance your planning. Simply put, ask the customer what’s important instead of guessing what you think they want to hear. What you discover will return huge benefits to your business and marketing planning.


About Colin N. Clarke, Ph.D.

Colin is a Senior Research Strategist and Consultant for Prime46. He has worked on assignments from the Mississippi delta to the western Canadian prairies to the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. His projects have covered industries from manufacturing and logistics to energy and food production, along the way working for the likes of 3M, PepsiCo, Bobcat Company, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Royal Dutch Shell.

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