No Buyer Insight Equals No Innovation

Yesterday, the blog post was on the value of social media inputs in marketing strategy and planning. The core thought was engaging your target market. Once you figure out why consumers like your brand, you can focus on how to give them what they want faster and easier.

Jeff Hoffman, who was on the founding team of both Priceline and Ubid, tells the story of a road trip with the pop wonder band ‘N Sync: (He was in a huge Times Square music store and had the following observation.)

As the CEO of a start-up entertainment company, I was trying to remake the movie Grease with ‘N Sync in the starring role.  And while my friendship with the band didn’t make me one ounce cooler, it did give me a unique view into the inner workings of the music industry. Because of the immense popularity of the band at that time, the owners of the major music store chain were with us in the room.  Watching people come in and out of the giant store to buy music, I asked those owners why they thought people bought music from them.

“To buy CDs,” they told me.  I replied: “I don’t think so.”  

They looked at me like I was nuts.  “Nobody anywhere wants to buy a CD,” I offered.

They responded indignantly. “Do you have any idea how many millions of CDs we sell a year?”

I pushed further, adding, “Nobody in the world wakes up in the morning thinking to themselves, ‘Wow, I wish I was holding a round piece of plastic with a hole in it right now.’  They wake up in the morning thinking, ‘I want to hear that new song in my ear! Right now!’  They have to buy a CD, but what they want is to put a song in their ear.  Right now!” 

Walking away in disgust at my apparent stupidity, the CEO said to me: “What’s the difference?”

Clearly, the CEO did not understand how to give customers what they wanted faster and easier. Napster was the first to try and harness the power of the customer preference, but they ran into legal snags. Apple, through the iTunes brand and a legal approach, came up with  a service, then tied it to a proprietary device and made money on both. In the meantime, record companies and music stores have seen declining margins and top line revenues lost.

Pandora took the iTunes model and provided music on demand. More recently, Spotify began offering streaming music from playlists that consumers could create. Hoffman says that the music chain of stores he was visiting with ‘N Sync in New York City eventually filed for bankruptcy.  Why? Their executive team did not understand why customers came in to buy records.

Take a look at your own situation. Have you clearly identified your business objective and target market?  What motivates your customers?  Hoffman shares that, in the early days of Priceline, when a group of the founding executives and he discussed the fact that they were not selling airline tickets for a living.  Instead, the team saw their “product” as  helping someone get you to a sister’s wedding, at an affordable price.  The difference in perception resulted in an improvement in service.

You too can improve your service by paying better attention to what motivates and engages your target audience. Think through how you can connect with them. How can you make it as easy as possible for them to do business with you instead of the other company? What can you do to help them get what they want faster, at a competitive price?

 

 

 

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Growth Through Market Knowledge

Market positioning is won through a combination of market insights, product features, and delivery of “the promise.” Superior use of these three components makes for a winning strategy to outperform the competition. Market insights are critical to determining what to offer, in what way, and how to communicate one’s message effectively. There are two types of insights that should be studied in unison to drive your internal strategies an external tactics–competitor and buyer. 

Researching the Competition

Understanding where your product fits in the market is just good business sense. If you never take the time to study what others are doing, you will likely not be on target. When I was taking a strategy course in my MBA studies, we were treated to a semester long simulator assignment. The simulator was comprised of five teams of students who each organized to make decisions about their unique computer chip company. We were given freedom to make decisions about what size, durability, and other features different models in our product line would have. We also elected financing options, manufacturing capacities and human resources/training choices. Finally, we were able to allocate dollars between marketing and sales activities and each team received market data that showed what buyers were purchasing, along with trend reports showing products likely to be in demand in the future. Observing what changes others were making, and relatively what they were spending for parts of their businesses, then tracking both sales and profitability performance and plotting it against market share and stock price was a very instructional exercise.

What was most valuable for us was to see a glimpse into the decisions that our competitors were making. Much like a game of chess or a soccer match, the tactical maneuvers employed by others were not just to be noticed, but anticipated, planed for, and counter actions developed. Additionally, we would have strategy sessions to think through whether to do something unexpected, stay the course, expand/shrink products based on resource needs and profitability, plus make trade-offs between automation and personnel. 

In your own business environment, research data is compiled form three main sources:

  1. Primary: first-hand interaction with the market and reporting.
  2. Secondary: compiled reference materials outlining primary research others have done.
  3. Tertiary: facts and figures derived from someone else’s summary research statistics.

Surveys, focus groups, interviews, literature searches, online services, and personal observation are all legitimate ways to collect the above data, dependent on your desired level of confidence in the decisions you must make. Industry associations, through conferences and publications, provide a fair amount of secondary and tertiary research information about competitors and buyers.

Buyer Research

Though I have guided many companies in market research projects over the years, these days I try to guide clients to resources when someone is more dedicated to a discipline than I. Jay Nolfo, who writes the blog Pensare, and is a good friend of mine is one such  resource. (By the way, his company uses a rhino rather than a hippo, but at least we’re similar!) Here’s what he had to say in a blog post earlier this year:

  • Introduction of New Product or Service: Any new business, or introduction of a new product or service that the company is thinking of offering, needs market research.  By developing a good understanding of the product by developing a good business plan based on market research helps provide a solid foundation for your offering.
  • Customer Development: Next to understanding the product or service you are offering, understanding the customer who will be buying it is paramount.  In a consumer based business, understanding the demographics and psychographics of a target market can be determined by looking at previous purchase behavior or through a needs analysis.  In a business which sells to other businesses, understanding their needs can be a little more difficult.  However, this can be understood by doing surveys or focus groups.
  • Customer Satisfaction: After your customers have purchased your product or service, following up with them to understand their satisfaction of that purchase is key.  By understanding why they liked or disliked your offering and the reasons why the customer purchased your product or service over the competition can provide a basis of what could be your competitive advantage.

Take the matter to heart…consider how to improve your knowledge of what competitors are doing and what buyers want. You will then, as we did in our MBA class, be better prepared to develop winning business ideas!

 

How Do Successful Companies Market?

 

Businesses on the leading edge of industry trends and developments are market-driven. Thus is not to say they manage their financial and operating efforts poorly; rather, the financial and operating efforts serve as strong support bases for the marketing power from which they derive most of their profits. Possessing a thorough understanding of the various markets in which a business competes, top companies are able to identify which exact product offerings, features and characteristics are most desirable for their target customers in each market sought. Having identified these key characteristics, top performers direct aggressive marketing campaigns at the universe of prospects who meet the general description, letting them know what they plan to offer, when, how and where. Further marketing efforts are focused on developing consultative conversations to entice this target market to purchase, usually including a solid follow-up process for keeping in touch with potential buyers.

Continual market research is essential for small business success, helping the successful executive team to develop a feel for the target markets. You need to know who your ideal client will be–and create corresponding prospective buyer profiles. By studying the types of prospects who visit your website and those of your competitors, it is not hard to get a feel for who your prospects are. What other constituencies should be studied?

  • Competitors
  • Distributors or referral networks
  • Sales channels–online and other
  • Demographic groups and their buying patterns
  • Prior customers and their feedback

Knowing as much as possible about the purchaser of your offering helps successful companies design aspects of the offering that fulfill unique needs (think about how Starbucks creates an environment in which we pay three times as much for a hot beverage as the prior source). By thinking through the offering thoroughly, savvy companies gain a competitive advantage over the competition through informed development decisions. From the same marketing information gathered about prospective buyers and their habits, a business can determine pricing and sales techniques that should lead to higher revenues and profitability. This research process gives you a distinct leg up on those who do not put in adequate effort to understand customer needs.

Putting information to the best possible use is a skill that further distinguishes the successful enterprise from its competition. Selective–and effective–advertising and promotional campaigns can be carried out on even the smallest budget. Social media outsourcing companies will do a phenomenal job for you for as little as $500/month. Other forms of promotion should not be ignored, however, as many traditional approaches are still valid, perhaps none more so that one-to-one networking with the right people. Successful executive teams realize that marketing is all about building a conversation–online and in person. Good information sets the stage for the conversation, but we still must create an open two-way dialogue with people who matter. 

Successful businesses also develop marketing plans that lure prospects into asking to be contacted. For example, if your company can offer better terms than the competition, that needs to be promoted. Sales or promotions can drive short-term traffic, but are not your best long-term tactic for profitable growth. Better, think about bundling and cross selling opportunities to entice a customer to sample more of your wares. The intent is to create a symbiotic relationship wherein they see you as a trusted provider of multiple things they need and value. There are more ways to attract and optimize customer interactions, the common thread being that you need to think through how you make your offering “sticky” enough to hold someone’s attention in a day when so many other messages are competing for it. Motivate prospects to buy your offering over the competition’s!

 

4 SmallBiz Keys to Success From Fieri

If you are a successful small business owner, chances are high that you didn’t get to that place without some setbacks. Rare is the one who never experiences setbacks–in business or life. However, in the sentiment of “turning lemons into lemonade,” it is important that we never allow the setbacks to keep us under. Guy Fieri of Food Network fame certainly has attained some notoriety. We love to watch his show Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and have visited several of the restaurants featured on the show.

Guy has a certain flair about him–he of the big hair, fancy sports car, and distinctive gotee. Years ago, he and a friend, Steve Gruber, launched their successful food careers with Johnny Garlic’s, two California-style restaurants. The original location in Santa Rosa caught fire one night in 2001. Undeterred, the pair launched another restaurant in 2003, Tex Wasabi’s, which also developed a loyal following. A year later, Russell Ramsay’s Chop House replaced the first Johnny Garlic and the due felt they had come full circle. However, Russell Ramsay’s was slow to get off the ground. Tinkering with the menu and trying to woo former customers back were unsuccessful in helping turn things around.

Gwen Moran, writing for Entrepreneur, shares Guy’s journey:

…one day, Fieri was sitting at a traffic light, when a guy in the car next to him called over and asked, “Hey, why didn’t you reopen Johnny Garlic’s?” Fieri replied, “I did. It’s the Chop House.” His former customer said he couldn’t afford to eat at the Chop House, and he missed the original restaurant.

That was Fieri’s light-bulb moment. Customers wanted the familiar place they had grown to love. The Chop House gave off a too-rich-for-our-blood vibe—not a good fit for the eatery’s largely blue-collar following. Within a year, the Chop House closed and reopened Johnny Garlic’s, business was up 25 percent within the first month.

Moran says that Fieri learned four lessons from his experience:

1. Listen to feedback from your customers. If Fieri hadn’t paid attention to the guy who spoke to him at the red light, he might have continued trying to get customers to accept something they just didn’t want.

2. Understand your customers’ perception of your business. The Chop House menu wasn’t significantly more expensive than Johnny Garlic’s, but people thought it was. That’s what mattered — and what kept them away.

3. Check your ego at the door. Fieri could easily have let his track record as a successful restaurateur go to his head instead of admitting that the Chop House wasn’t the best fit. Really listen when you get feedback from customers and employees, he says. They’re telling you how you can be better.

4. Don’t give up on your dream. Find a way to make your dream work, even if you have to keep experimenting with new ideas and approaches until something sticks. “Surround yourself with good people who are dedicated and have good ideas, and can help you see what you’re missing. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water [when times get tough],” he says.

These are four watchwords for any business owner. After we’ve been in business a while, it is so easy to forget what/who helped bring you to that point. Without competitive advantage, a business is not successful. Without customers, there can be no competitive advantage. Inattention to input and thoughts about your business leads to a lack of customers. A willingness to adapt to what the market needs is key to business success. Finally, as Fieri suggests, perseverance is the “glue” that holds it all together.

 

Wow Your Customer to Win

How many times have you heard a phrase like “user experience” or “customer experience” in the past decade? Quite a lot I bet–unless you live under a rock. Great companies from Starbucks to Ritz Carlton, Nordstrom’s to Apple have taken the time to be intentional about their offerings, including those small touches that are so memorable.

Paul Spiegelman is a business owner whom I follow on Twitter. He wrote for Inc. magazine over the weekend about a splendid resort experience he had recently. There were aspects of the stay where expectations were met. However, he was blown away by the special touches. Paul believes that small businesses would do well to:

1. Notice What’s Important

When my wife and I got to the check-in counter, we were assigned to our hotel room. The staffer noticed we had small children and immediately brought out a wagon full of stuffed animals and encouraged our kids to pick one. This seemingly small gesture showed the resort was paying attention to what is most important to us.

2. Be a Guide

Rather than just hand me the room key, the clerk stepped around the front desk, told me he was going to tour my family and me around the property and then escort us to our room. And that’s just what he did. Not sure how the hotel managed that with multiple people checking in at the same time, but it was impressive. Do you do this when you give clients direction?

3. Start the Morning Right

I love it when hotels offer morning coffee. But it is usually in very small cups, and you inevitably wind up going back repeatedly for more. At the (place we stayed), the coffee cups looked about the same size as a Starbucks Venti. And the coffee was free until 11 a.m. What a great way to start the day.

4. Empower the Unexpected

At breakfast one morning, we celebrated my 12-year-old nephew’s birthday. During the meal, unbeknownst to me or my family, our waiter slipped out of the hotel, went to his car, and brought back a book that he gave to my nephew as a gift. Can you imagine? What small, unexpected touches do you enable your employees to offer without having to ask permission?

5. Don’t Just Pass By

As usual, I often saw hotel employees in the hallways or outside walkways. But in addition to the standard “good morning” and pleasant smile, the workers went out of their way to purposely step aside and create a path for me, whether I was with a group or walking alone. Instead of two people mindlessly passing each other, we had a moment to interact.

6. Communicate Price Clearly

When I checked out of the hotel and asked for a bellman to help my family and me with our bags, he also brought our bill to the room so we could check it then and raise any issues or questions. I have never experienced that kind of active transparency; it was great to have someone make sure the details of the bill fit the service we paid for.

7. Leave Them With a Lasting Memory

When our car was loaded up and my family and I were ready to go, not only did we find the staffers had left two bottles of water in the car cup holders but also two logo baseball caps on the dashboard for my wife and me. We drove away with smiles on our faces.

Many of these noticeable expressions of customer care do not cost anything extra to provide, but make a huge impression. How do you show that you care about what’s most important to your customers? Are you the type who tells a customer what needs doing, or do you take the time to show? How do you go “above and beyond?” Do your customers feel respected by your actions? Have someone in your organization (as senior a level as possible is ideal) take the time to explain billing and offer to answer questions for customers. What memories would you like to build in the minds of your customers?

If you will think through these questions and best practices, you will win the hearts of your customers.