Most of my work over the latter years has been around helping organisations to generate profitable revenues by doing a better job of addressing customer needs. In the course of my work I spend a lot of time with the folks responsible for marketing and sales.
One of the exercises that I do is to get the right people from customer touching functions such as marketing, sales and customer services in a workshop. And then I guide the folks through a structured SWOT type process for each significant customer segment.
The process starts of by asking the people in the room to identify what matters to the people in that customer segment. What are the jobs that these people are hiring the company’s ‘products’ to do for them? And what are the key outcomes that matter to the customers. This is terminology that is not typically familiar to the people in the room so there is some tension in the room. At some point someone in the marketing function will say “Aha, you are talking about customer needs!” and everyone relaxes.
Then the answers come. Almost always the top five tend to be: brand, product, quality, price, and service. Not particularly useful and I have learnt not to challenge people at this stage. So, I ask the people around the room to allocate 100 points between these five needs. This is where the fun starts . First, people really struggle to allocate weights to these five needs. And second, there tends to a lot of predictable disagreement. Marketers rate brand and quality highly. The Sales folks rate product and price highly. The folks from Customer Services tend to rate quality and service highly. And if there is senior, dominant, person in the room then slowly the people in the room come around to his/her way of thinking and weighting these top five needs. Notice something? How confident would you be that the people in the room are providing you with an accurate picture of what matters to customers?
Next, I ask the folks sitting around the large conference table to identify their key competitors. And once they have done so I create a grid. The columns are the company and its key competitors. The rows are the top five needs usually brand, product, quality, price and service. Now I ask the people in the room to evaluate how each of the competitors is doing in terms of meeting these five customer needs by giving marks out of 10. Once again the fun starts. People really struggle to come up with weighted answers. And there is considerable disagreement between people.
By the time we get to this stage the people around the room sigh a collective relief as if to say “Wow, that was hard work. We are so relieved that this is over and done with.”
At this stage I am hoping for someone to say “Going through that exercise has made me realise that I/we know so little about what matters to our customers. And how we compare to our competitors on what matters to our customers, as seen through the eyes of our customers. So we should go and get better answers by conducting research, talking with customers, talking with the people on the front line who actually are in touch with customers on a daily basis.” This rarely happens.
Instead, the people around the room have an air of assurance. They are visibly convinced that they know what matters to their customers. And how they compare to their competitors. It is as if the hard work of the exercise that I have taken them through hypnotises them into believing that the answers they have conjured up have to be true, are true.
So the biggest barrier to coming up with a powerful customer based strategy is simply this: ignorance and prejudice masquerading as knowledge/understanding of customers. The failure of people to say “We don’t know what really matters – jobs, outcomes, needs – to our customers. We don’t know how customers prioritise these jobs-outcomes-needs. We don’t know how our customers see us in comparison with our competitors. Let’s go and find out.”