Customer Input

If I Were You…

In the new television series Touch, the main character Martin Bohm advises another “I wouldn’t do that if I were you”, going on to explain the likely negative implications of the action she was about to take. For firms that are starting on their 2013 planning process, it’s a great idea to ask your major customers if their advice falls along the same lines.

One company decided to streamline its product line, believing that increased scale for each of the surviving offerings would yield cost savings and improved competitiveness. Unfortunately, one of the offerings that was eliminated in the process was viewed as the critical one by a major customer.

Another firm pre-announced a new technology on which its next generation of products was going to be based. A key customer shifted to a competitor in order to ensure technological consistency across the product generations. Avoiding having to say “Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea after all” is, however, just one reason for getting customer feedback about your business plans for the coming year.[i]

The far more important reason for soliciting customer input is rooted in the fact that the best plans are customer-written plans. After all, for most firms, and especially for many business-to-business suppliers, the majority of growth is going to come from existing customer relationships. And for most suppliers, and especially those that have strategic relationships with some customers, it is not hard to hear the messages that enable the definition of such customer-written plans.

In many instances, you only have to ask. Customers that depend on suppliers for a significant portion of their value typically have strong ideas as to what such suppliers should emphasize in their plans, and can easily complete the sentence “If I were you …” with a clear set of recommendations as to “… this is what I would do”.

In quite a few instances in which I’ve been part of the process of asking customers for their suggestions, what they’ve started with is a statement of their own growth plans, using that as a foundation to explain the ideas that they believe make sense for the supplier asking the question. This is logical all around. For the customer sharing elements of its own growth plan, nothing could be better than having suppliers aligned and contributing to the success of such initiatives. For the supplier hearing of such growth plans, nothing can be better, if they see an opportunity for contributions, than knowing that a key customer is going to be highly receptive to that contribution. Aligned growth plans are the foundation for “win-win” success stories.

In a recent project, discussions with our client’s customers about growth priorities yielded some high-value statements about needs that were poorly met by not only our client’s product, but also those of its competitors. Two of the themes that frequently appeared on such wish lists were well known to our client and probably to their competitors, but the means by which such wishes could be granted wasn’t known to any of them.

But a third theme that was frequently on the wish lists came as a surprise, and, in, fact, as a rather pleasant surprise in that they saw a rather quick approach through which they could respond to it. It was only by asking a question that yielded a response of the form “If I were you …” did this opportunity surface.

Planning for 2013 and beyond is a key time to incorporate customer inputs into the process. In a recent study of corporate marketing best practices, two of my colleagues quoted Katherine Button Bell of Emerson as saying “Listening to the customer has to be the ‘0’ gate in the product development process”.[ii] That same advice rings true for other elements of your firm’s growth plan. As you head into this planning process, keep it in mind!

Author: George F. Brown, Jr.

[i]For more examples and a discussion of this challenge, see George F. Brown, Jr., Maybe That Wasn’t Such a Good Idea after All, Business Excellence, July 7, 2012.

[ii] Atlee Valentine Pope and Ralph A. Oliva, The Ten Key Roles of a B-to-B Corporate Marketing Function … Or Avoiding the Loneliness of Long-Term Parking, NMOA Direct Marketing, July 2012.

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