Every company wants to be the next big thing. But, here's the truth: adoption and growth won't happen just because you have an amazing product or service. Growth is earned, step by careful step. All too often, growth is stymied for a specific reason. It's often because the company is out of touch with its customers, the market or its own employees.
There is a reason why so many of today's customers refer to their suppliers and vendors as "partners." I see this every day in my company. Customers expect their vendors to be equally committed to their success or personal wellness. If you want to rise to the top of your category, whether you're in software, consumer products, or an aspiring direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand, you need a robust initiative that allows you to capture the voice of your customer and respond to their needs. That requires a commitment to customer centricity, continuous innovation, investment in your employees and, above all, agility.
A broad voice of the customer initiative should encompass the following:
- Qualitative and quantitative analysis and insight
- Biased and unbiased research
- In-person contact, along with automation that allows for feedback at every customer touchpoint
- A data-driven insight that shows you what you might not want to know, but absolutely need to focus on
Here are several strategies for creating a robust, voice-of-the consumer program. I can, with full confidence, promise that if you adopt a customer-centric approach, the things you will learn will astound you and make you a better partner to your customers.
Surveys are excellent quantitative tools to get a sense of what your customers need from your company so you can finesse your product roadmap.
Surveys allow you to gauge your customers' toughest challenges and see how those challenges evolve over time. The best surveys ask about their three to five-year plans, which gives you ample time to optimize the product roadmap to meet their needs – many of which you may be unaware of.
It's important to understand that surveys are inherently biased. People who consider you their partners are likely to respond to how they think you want them to. Psychologists warn us of this effect. One strategy to combat that is to frame your questions in such a way that encourages honesty. For instance, rather than ask them to rate the job you're doing, ask where they'd like to see improvement in the customer experience.
Survey results can also be used as the starting point for qualitative research. If 75% of your survey respondents say they'd like to see you relaunch your entire product line in pink, set up interviews with a subset of customers to understand the drivers behind that need.
The insights you glean from these one-on-one interviews will be highly strategic. This is how we learned about the intense desire of finance teams to have a more front-office, hands-on role in the company's decision-making process, and to be seen as strategic partners and not simply number-crunchers.
Business roundtables are purely qualitative, but there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings with company executives. Our company has them every year. Here's how they work: Invite your top customers to your facility, or organize an executive roadshow, where a select team of executives participate in a regional meeting with your customers.
The purpose of these meetings is to present a three to five-year product roadmap and then ask for feedback from customers. What do they see missing? Where is their business headed? How can you better meet their needs?
Listen to what your customers say. There are always buzzwords flying around an industry – organic, locally sourced, green, AI-driven, blockchain, DTC selling models, etc. Which trends and developments are they investing in? Which innovations do you need to adopt in order to retain their long-term loyalty?
Speaking of loyalty, companies are always bringing functions in-house. Don't assume that's a sign they want to terminate the relationship; see it as your opportunity to evolve. If they bring a function in-house, what do they want you to provide? Outline how you will plan to work and grow together in the years to come. It's an excellent way to transform the relationship into a true partnership.
Social listening, which can track tweets and other online conversations, is purely qualitative and 100% unbiased, as people who are talking about your brand or industry aren't aware you're listening in. Social conversations are often a stronger predictor of consumer behavior than surveys and interviews, which is why you should pay attention to them.
There are plenty of affordable tools that allow you to listen, so this vital customer research tool won't break the bank. Other tools, such as Affinio, allow you to get a deeper understanding of your customers by analyzing who they follow, who their influencers are, the terms and language they use, sites they visit, and so on. It can also help you build your market by modeling your existing users, and using that as a basis to reach and engage new customers to your brand.
Data analysis is both quantitative and unbiased. Unfortunately, it's often underutilized by companies. Every company amasses huge quantities of first-party customer data, and within its bits and bytes, you will find insights that are unique to your company.
Begin by looking for signals within your CRM, POS and website data. For example, data can help you identify when, where and why you lose market share. You can leverage that data to pinpoint which customer segments you're losing and which ones you're gaining. Strategically, you can then tie those trends to your social listening activities to understand why they're leaving or coming to your brand.
Big data is no passing trend; your data is one of your most important and strategic assets. There's a lot of terrific tools on the market to help you activate your data in a wide array of marketing and customer care initiatives, including data management and customer management platforms. A host of business intelligence solutions let you visualize the data so that you can home in on emerging trends.
Feedback forms, deployed at every customer touchpoint, are quantitative, qualitative and biased. These forms can be survey-based, such as asking for a rating on a scale of one to five, or you can offer free form text boxes.
Inviting customers to provide feedback at every touchpoint is the epitome of customer-centricity. It also provides direct and actionable input for improving your overall customer experience. Collect and analyze the data regularly to identify failure points, what works well and what is confusing.
You don't need to reinvent the wheel here; plenty of vendors provide a turnkey solution for implementing feedback forms on your website and display ads. The costs are entirely reasonable as well.
I completely understand that many companies need to rely on help files, virtual assistants and other automated technologies to serve as front-line customer service. Others leverage online communities so that customers can ask other customers questions and get responses. These are all valuable tools, and they have the added advantage of eliminating friction when customers have a simple question.
That being said, you still need a system in place to talk to your customers. When she was CEO of eBay, Meg Whitman required every employee to pick up the phone and speak to some customers on an annual basis.
For people who don't regularly talk to customers, the thought of calling one may be discomforting. But the experience is likely to be positive. First, the customer will be grateful for the opportunity to share their experiences. Even better, it's an opportunity for your company to learn why they chose your brand over another and the unique ways they use your product. This is insight that your marketing team will see as gold. These conversations will be an excellent source of case studies, proof points and customer quotes for you to leverage.
There is so much entrepreneurialism in the economy right now. That's why I'm bullish on our long-term economy. But it's no secret that many startups and new brands will fail, through no fault of the product design or business idea. Failure can be mitigated, however, as long as you do the following:
- Commit to customer centricity, and listen earnestly to what the market tells you.
- Analyze what they say, and monitor how things evolve over time.
- Use those insights to innovate so you better meet your customers' needs.
Remember, a modern, successful leader never stops repeating this cycle.