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Listening to your Customer

Steve Jobs famously eschewed focus groups and market research in designing new Apple products.  He did not want to supply what customers wanted.  He wanted customers to want what he created.

Whether Apple will be able to sustain that level of creativity is a question only time will answer.  But Jobs’ attitude did not mean that Apple was deaf to its customers – quite the opposite.  Having created the kind of loyalty that just about any other corporation can only dream of, everything Apple does has been tailored to retaining that crazy loyalty.

Marketing departments typically spend their time and resources looking for ever better ways to ensure that potential customers hear their message.  Customer service departments focus on fixing customer problems.  Who in your business is dedicated to listening to the customers you have, to build loyalty?  It’s cheaper and easier than acquiring new customers, and it’s cheaper and easier than fixing relationships with disappointed customers.

The big question is ‘How?’

How can you really listen to the voice of your customer? 

Surveys are great – especially low cost, easy-to-implement online surveys using tools like Zoomerang or Survey Monkey.  These have the benefit that they take little effort from your customer (and why should they make a big effort?) and can be supported by an appropriate incentive like a small reward or a competition entry.

The gold standard for good feedback on what you do (and don’t do) is follow-up calls or meetings from someone separate from the team that serves your customer.  To make it work for both you and your customer, you must welcome absolutely frank assessments and ask good questions to secure details that make appropriate actions easy to target accurately.

But what if your customers won’t talk to you?  You can always employ a ‘professional customer’ – mystery shoppers.  They are great for thorough, detailed and accurate assessment of what you do.  Unlike real customers, however, they cannot give you information about what else they want, from your product or service lines.

Customer focus groups or ‘customer panels’ can do that.  They are a lot of work to plan and organise and expensive too – often requiring specialist consultants, room hire, and inducements to participate.  This is a form of market research and the Marketing Pocketbook offers eight more variants on what we have above.

The forgotten question is Why?

In case ‘why would you listen to your customer?’ seems like a pointless question with an obvious answer: ‘of course you must’ – stop for a moment.

Of course you must, but unless you know why you are going to do it, you rune the risk of asking the wrong questions, choosing the wrong format, and mis-using the answers.  It is all too easy to feel like you are doing something useful by sending people out to listen to your customers, but before you do so, make sure you have a purpose and design the process accordingly.

A Paradigm Shift

Michael Porter identified two sources of competitive advantage:

  1. Industry Cost Leadership
  2. Product Differentiation

Arguably, Apple has neither, with high prices for products that are being successfully emulated by their main rivals.  So how are they succeeding?  I believe by a third source of competitive advantage: brand loyalty.

As a prevailing business strategy, this is new force in big business, but one we can all exploit, by building an organisation that excites and values its customers so much that we win the kind of fanatical following that Apple has.

If you can do that – with or without one of Porter’s two other sources of competitive advantage – you have the basis for a long-term business.

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