As strategists and marketers one of our more complex tasks is to listen to customer feedback, probe market dynamics, understand competitive intent, divine replacement or disruptive technology and synthesize the varied inputs into actionable information for the business. My experience has been, however, that even the least xenophobic teams trust too completely in their own data and their own framing of market and customer dynamics, which leads to numerous strategic and marketing errors of omission and commission.
Take for example the dutiful front-line marketing team which shares at company meetings first-hand accounts of deals they won and lost. The stories are captivating and no doubt provide insight into operations, science/engineering and other teams who rarely have the chance to directly observe the real-world dynamics of their product deals. We know, however, that there is bias in the selection of which deals to present to the audience and that a few instances of competitive dynamics is not data but mere anecdote, no matter how well intentioned.
What about the team that does more systematic sampling of wins and losses, convincing the sales force to document the final disposition of all deals from their funnel on a quarterly basis. Can we trust this information? While having more data points and in theory, not being selective which deals to include, is clearly moving in the right direction, the source of bias is the sales rep making the observations. Anyone who has been through this exercise make recognize the top 3 reasons why “we” lose from this type of analysis:
- Customer relationship with the competitive account manager
- Lack of product performance/features
It’s not that the sales team is intentionally trying to skew the data, nor that marketing teams believe that this is necessarily the best method to collect deal dynamics. Nevertheless, our not wanting to rock the boat by putting an objective, market research firm at the helm of collecting information directly from the customer trumps our own instincts to distrust the information we’re gathering. Worse, folks further from strategy and marketing may end up feeling good about the collected data and be even less suspicious of their own plans and strategies which align with the “data”.
I am always mindful of the elementary school biology example of the frog placed in a shallow pan of water on the stove. The frog does not jump to safety when gradual heat is applied to the pan. So how do ensure we can take the mental leap out of our own business to think objectively about the opportunities and issues facing the company?
It’s a slight shift in focus, from trying to find the right data and answers to finding the right questions. The right questions are always more valuable than answers. Remember your inner three-year-old and follow your why! A few other tips to cultivate healthy distrust:
- Seek out customers who purchased in the past but haven’t bought recently. Ask them why they’ve stopped buying and if there’s anything the company can do to earn their business in the future.
- Stay close to technical support and customer service. Repetitive issues, even at low levels, are the smoke that can sometimes lead to fire. Remember that the customers that reach out to you are just a portion of your dissatisfied customers.
- Use 3rd party market research firms to conduct win/loss studies, surveys and focus groups. Try to understand if your value proposition is still relevant, credible, distinct and positively impacts purchase intent. Watch the win/loss trend line over the year. Seek out unaided impressions of your firm vs. the competition. Try using QFD to understand what the customers values most when selecting your product vs. the competition.
- Travel with sales on customer visits. See if you can bring you to an unhappy customer, not just the best and brightest account. Even better: have them bring you to the customer who is a die-hard fan of the competition!
If you can sit with objective data and resist drawing conclusions for as long as possible, ask a lot of questions, listen and observe deeply, cultivating an outsiders mindset, you will always find new opportunities for improvement and growth….that you can believe it.