Newton Was the One Who Asked 'Why?'

I recently had the opportunity to work with a client that had decided to implement a new, forward-looking approach to their voice of the customer initiative. Their priorities were sound, as they looked to get beyond the retrospective report cards they had been getting for many years. Their goal was to produce messages that were more actionable and focused on future opportunities through which they could create and capture value. Their initial iteration on the interview guide designed for this purpose was a very strong beginning. It asked “What?”, “When?”, and “Who?” quite frequently, and even included a number of questions that got to “How?”

There was, however, one missing ingredient. Financier and statesman Bernard Baruch once observed “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why.” I’ve learned that “Why?” questions can produce some highly-valuable insights.

Some years ago, I worked with a client in the building systems industry that was looking to identify some headroom for growth in adjacent markets. Among the approaches that were used to identify possible nearby product options was that of examining what their customers also bought on the purchase occasions on which they bought this firm’s products.

This effort spotlighted a few adjacent products that fit well with this firm’s growth ambitions and competencies. The inquiries also enabled the firm to identify the pivotal product that was bought on those purchase occasions, the one that customers viewed as driving their selections among brands across all the products purchased on those occasions. Unfortunately, for various reasons, there were not feasible options by which this firm could become a supplier of these pivotal products. But, by asking “Why?”, the firm gained insights that produced a growth bonus for them.

What they learned by asking “Why?” was that customers had classified the suppliers of these pivotal products into two clusters, based upon a subtle but important difference in the technology on which their offerings were based. Either technology was viewed as an acceptable choice, and customers often considered suppliers using both technologies for a particular application before making their purchase decision. What our client learned by asking “Why?” was that their own product was viewed as working very well with one technology option, but not the other. They in fact were ruled out in instances in which a customer made a pivotal product choice that involved the technology where their product was not viewed as a good match. When this supplier learned of this, they were able to introduce a sister version of their product that resolved the issue and made their firm a viable choice regardless of which direction was selected for the pivotal product, thereby opening up a much greater available market. Asking “Why?” yielded a sizeable gain in sales and market share.

In a different engagement with a firm in the telecommunications industry, asking “Why?” produced very startling and important insights. Our firm was an ingredients supplier serving the major equipment manufacturers in the industry. While they continued to get orders from these customers, they felt that they were getting far less “mind share” than in past years, and worried that might translate into future disappointments. The “Why?” question produced a very unexpected answer. What we heard from several of this firm’s major customers was that they saw the industry changing, and were prioritizing their own efforts – and their supplier relationships – to move in new directions seen as critical to their future.

This finding included both bad news and good news elements for the firm with which we were working. The bad news was that the line of business on which they had built these key customer relationships was going to decline under the scenarios that their customers had accepted as part of their own planning processes. The good news was that those same scenarios offered the potential for high-value contributions, albeit with different products, and, in some instances, with a change in the mix of customers. Learning “Why?” – and gaining that answer early – made a huge difference for this firm, enabling it to redirect its own efforts in a way that better matched the direction in which their industry was headed.

The answers to the “Why?” questions in the two case studies above didn’t change the world to the extent that Newton’s discovery did, but they clearly were quite important to the firms involved. “Why?” questions belong on the roster of questions to ask when firms try to develop strong messages from the market that can inform their strategies and plans. They are a critical element of effective voice of the customer programs.

Author: George F. Brown, Jr.

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