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November 08, 2005


Nolin LeChasseur

I think it's also important to remember that everything you do in an attempt to satisfy an unmet need will be evaluated by the customer from their perspective; never objectively from an omniscient view of the universe.

So it doesn't really matter how well a customer articulates their 'ideal world'. It only matters what they currently think they need, whether or not they believe you can help them, and how intimately you understand their perspective.

It's not a direct path from here to nirvana in one step. As your customer's needs and perspective change, so must your actions in your ongoing quest to be perceived as meeting those needs. Listening to and conversing with customers is not about identifying the holy grail need once, then sprinting to get there.

The goal of listening to customers should be to constantly view the world through their eyes when looking for business opportunities and evaluating how well you're doing what they are willing to pay you for.

Dale Wolf

I recently did a related blog that might be interesting to some of your readers, but let me add a few thoughts:

It is always "and" and never "or." What we have to be good at is deciphering all the input we get from various sources and use this to make decisions about products, branding, pricing, promotions, service, etc.

For one, I have grown tired of focus groups and like to get input from one-on-one discussions. I also get a lot of insight from our website click stream by posting content options that give the visitor a choice of two different paths. How they go about selecting content is then very instructive. See this at:

It is essential to talk to customers. An example, recently a colleague of mine attended a conference with information systems managers. He went to the conference with a predisposed concept that our customers were all doing programming for desktop users and that the mainframe was a dead territory. He observed a lot of attendees who were programming for their company mainframe systems ... and that these were not older managers hanging onto mainframe systems of the past ... they were young, bright and energetic programmers who saw their futures in mainframes. This was an observation that hit our company like ice water in the face. It happened because one of us went out among the unwashed and talked with them while the rest of us sat back at headquarters reading Gartner reports.

What if every manager in your company was required and held accountable for talking to one customer a day? The body of insights would be an incredible competitive advantage.

Second, it is very difficult to get customers to tell you what they want in terms of products. If it does not already exist, they have trouble imagining it. But if you focus your questions on what problems are they having that they cannot now solve and you let them rant on what's wrong, then with a good marketing background we should be able to devise solutions to these unmet needs.

Big Picture Guy

We have, in the Small Office, much experience in listening to the customer. This listening does not always translate into learning and even less often into action. This is unfortunate for a company that prides itself on relationships. If I’ve learned anything after 30 years of marriage, it’s that a relationship is built on trust and generous listening.

In reverse order of merit, I will share some of what has worked for us as well as what hasn’t and why.

#10 - Warranty Reports

A generally unused source of information. They don’t tell you what works, but they do tell you something about when and why they don’t. You have to know how to glean information from the data. Remember, sometimes how you handle a complaint is more important than the complaint itself.

#9 – Direct Surveys:

Direct surveys are good for getting feedback on ideas but not for generating them in the first place. People do not always know what to think until they see what you say. Looking to differentiate ourselves, we asked builders how we could best be of service. They proffered up few suggestions. We presented a Chinese menu of possibilities, from showroom support and coop advertising to free product in their model homes. Any and all were good. What else questions were greeted with shrugs for answers. So we offered up more ideas, such as a loyalty program with points redeemable for discounted product. Also good. And so it went. We were clearly on our own.

#8 - Third Party Surveys:

We bought into an established industry survey that measured service performance and customer satisfaction levels. It was a relatively low-cost way to benchmark ourselves versus our competitors. There were some things we did well that were apparently unimportant to customers. Where we scored badly, however, turned out to be on precisely those things our customer found important. This was obviously worrisome, so we dug deeper. It turns out that it was not a case of focusing on the wrong things; it was mostly that our failings stood out and became top-of-mind issues. What bubbles up is not what works but what doesn’t.

#7 - Focus Groups:

This tool is better at killing programs than defining them. All the failings everyone knows about focus groups came out in those we have conducted over the years. It appears that Robert Frost is correct: Half of the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t and the other half people who have nothing to say and keep on saying it. Every group seems to have its bully, those with strongly held positions, usually dominant ones within the group. If focus groups have to be managed, then the answers also become managed ones.

#6 – Corporate Websites and Blogs

Websites and blogs are usually better at getting consumers to ask questions than for asking them to provide answers. This is especially true if your visitors are one-timers, in to research and out to buy. If you can establish credibility in your field (in our case, home security), and if the design of your site is good and the commitment to it obvious, then you can engender return visits and, by extension, enhanced, more useful dialogue.

#5 – Call Reports

Sales people represent the voice of the customer. But rather than filter the voice by placing it in its appropriate context, reps will magnify it to make a point. If product managers want to really know how a product is performing, they had better get out and see for themselves. Which brings up…

#4 - Site Visits:

Visits by senior managers up to the President, including plant managers, product managers, the R&D folk, etc., enable them to see, up close and personal, products in action and how users really feel about them. The only problem is that the higher the level of visitor, the less likely a customer is to complain.

#3 - Dealer Councils:

Councils, dealer or trade, are extremely useful and have certainly have been well-received. We have used them to determine best practices – which of their suppliers in various product categories are best at specific traits (like merchandising, training, fill rate, invoicing accuracy). We have bounced new product ideas and potential promotion programs off the participants. We have brought in outside, usually motivational, speakers. But a Dealer Council is, in many ways, like a Board of Directors. The members would, hopefully, be experienced, wise, broadly-based and not direct competitors. Changing members is difficult. If a Council builds loyalty and trust, you would benefit by continually bringing in new members…which is hard to do unless you rotate out current members, which is even harder to do.

#2 - Field Testing / Market Testing:

It is better to be partly right in practice than perfectly right in theory. If the product is for the trades and the trades don’t like it, it doesn’t matter what consumers think and it certainly doesn’t matter what you think. While there are limits, you do need to run parallel tests to validate assumptions on price elasticity, marketing concepts and optimal distribution.

#1 - Hiring the Customer:

The Absolute Best Way to get closer to the customers is to hire one of them. You can learn directly from someone who was there what is needed to succeed. You can discover and overcome the pain points. Segment programs tend to provide the biggest ‘hits’ and to yield the highest returns on investment.

So there you have it, a top 10 for listening to the voice of the customer. And a strong recommendation to get your money’s worth and actually profit from what you hear.

Mike Bawden

If I were to distill this all down, I'd say that folks often confuse "talking with" customers and "listening to" them.

I spend a lot of time with clients, coaching them on how to listen to their customers, business partners, employees and communities as part of their visioning process. They have to take all of the needs, wants and desires of these groups into consideration when they draw their picture of what success for their business/brand looks like.

Thanks for the post, Jennifer, I'll be adding it to my daily list of blog posts folks should read for tomorrow (11/16) on the "Much Ado About Marketing" blog. It's a week late, I realize, but this conversation is never really over.

Thanks again,

Mike Bawden
Brand Central Station

David Foster

I think my post on "How Not to do Market Research" is relevant to this discussion...

Greg Hunt

I have no marketing background, but I have some software product design experience. I think that questions about detail and questions about context need to be addresed in different ways.

Asking people what they want from a software product is usually only vaguely interesting because you get bits of a mental shopping list for software tools, or you get the answer they think you want, which is not a coherent product. Rather than asking highly specific questions, talking about industry problems and the client's day to day problems is more useful and helps with seeing inside the client's head. It does however tend to sound like a general conversation more than sounding like research.

In my experience (performance management) the times that I got an "oh god thats good" response from a customer were the times that I presented answers to the broader problems that were not on anyone's feature shopping-list.

David Foster

My experience is that sales/account management are almost always happy to have marketing people along on a sales call *if* the marketing people have demonstrated that they can really add value to the sales process and not screw it up too often...

Jonathan Dampier

I work with a young company and have experienced the same of which Evelyn spoke. We finally took matters into our own hands and gathered customers to hear what they really thought.

It's typical in a young B2B company for marketing to "blocked" from prospects by sales and likewise by account management from customers.

I agree the Jennifer makes a fantastic point that it's not either/or but "and". Secondary research can only get you so far. And, realistically, how much can a marketer "observe" a prospect or client (per an earlier comment)?

Evelyn Rodriguez

Forgot to add that was a B2B startup.

Evelyn Rodriguez

Either/or. Good points on that it's easy and common to do NEITHER. Thanks!

One of my last marketing day jobs I was in a start-up that only sales folks really had access to customers. Couldn't understand why I couldn't do my "market research" via Forrester and Gartner reports and checking out the competitor's websites and pundit blogs and asking the executives and sales folks second-hand for their perceptions of customer needs.

Tom Asacker

I'm with you Jennifer. And FYI, my teeth were cut at G.E. in the B-to-B realm. You won't find a better team of people skilled in customer dialogue around performance, margins, issues, needs, strategic focus, etc.

But I've still found the greatest insights arose from discussions stimulated through keen observation. And as Forrest Gump once remarked: "And that's all I have to say about that." ;)

David Foster

"They're sitting in their offices staring at a picture of the ocean on their screensavers, thinking they understand it. At least get your ass over to the water and dip in your toe"..a great line! (OK, pair of lines)

I actually think that the huge investments currently being made in various "business intelligence" systems and "customer resources management" systems may actually make the problem worse, in that they will encourage more screensaver-viewing and less toe-dipping.

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