As successful business leaders, we feel we have a handle on what our customers want. Leveraging anecdotal feedback from the sales force, formal studies by the marketing team, data capture from customer service, and overall competitive research, there's a strong level of confidence in what customers need and how we can serve them.
Or are we secretly in the dark?
While all of this data and information is valuable, it only provides a high-level, big picture view. In addition, this is fundamentally the same information your competitors are seeking, capturing and acting on. So how do you effectively differentiate? While we might believe that as an organization we'll come up with better and more innovative ideas to execute, it's not always the case. Many times organizations simply follow the competition, adding new products or services to their lineup based on what others are doing, and not what's truly customer-driven. We make assumptions that our competition knows something we don't, and follow along as though it's a proven model.
The bigger opportunity comes when you instead shape your organization's behavior, actions, and culture around the customer, understanding simply not what they purchase and how they purchase it, but why they need something, how they use it, and what external factors impact what they are trying to achieve. In short, the job they are trying to get done.
For example, take the job of a furniture manufacturer. To complete one piece, such as a chair, they need to source a variety of materials, manage the production and quality process, packing, and shipping, for starters. If you are their supplier, you might provide components for the chair, such as the base or the frame. Most suppliers would simply make the assumption, based off of broad research and purchase trends, that the customer's most important needs include:
- Getting the materials on time
- Having them be of the best quality/consistent quality
- Having a good price/cheapest price
- Having a performance guarantee
These are necessary elements, but they are simply required to be "in the game" - not differentiators. They are simply required to even be considered as a potential supplier. Yet no matter how well you perform in these areas, they don't set you apart from other competitors. But in taking a customer-centric view, you can better identify the challenges a customer faces in accomplishing their job, and the opportunities you have as an organization to help them. In this example, as a supplier, how can you help the customer?
- Have better transparency to inventory and eliminate shrinkage
- Reduce material waste
- Better control of small components (nuts, bolts, etc.)
- Reduce assembly time/eliminating errors by streamlining component design
- Have easier and faster access to schematic information for troubleshooting on the shop floor
By shifting your focus to the customer job and your role in making accomplishing that job easier, you uncover unique ways to compete and differentiate. Instead of a generic outlook to customer needs, focusing on a more intimate view of a customer's job challenges will provide new avenues for innovation. It might not only transform your customer relationships, but your company culture as well.
Andrea Olson is founder of marketing and communications strategic consulting firm Prag'madik.