As a revenue coach, I do not consider my work successful until sales start going up. And sales will not go up until the CEO and other top managers make the mental shift from company-centered to customer-centric.
Traditional methods of customer research do not flip that switch. I know, because I’ve seen them all fail: focus groups, online surveys, email surveys, and so on.
Social media also belongs on the “fail” list. Executives believe that they are hearing what they need to hear from customers via that channel, but they’re not. Social media channels are dominated by ravers and whiners. The bulk of any company’s customers fall somewhere in between. They suffer, or walk away, in silence.
This is especially true in the B2B markets, where people are cautious about what they say in social media channels – including LinkedIn. They know perfectly well that their bosses, competitors, and potential employers have access to those messages, and they are very careful what they talk about and how they say it. So the messages that companies get from social media don’t represent the bulk of their buyers nor the issues they only talk about privately.
Because of these flaws, information gathered via traditional research and social media does not have the desired effect on CEOs. They still don’t “get it.” Instead, they are still easy prey for gurus selling things that make executives feel good about themselves, but that don’t address customer realities.
Marketers and customer experience professionals presenting results gathered via conventional research and social media can see that their bosses still aren’t getting it, and are still making poor decisions, but they can’t figure out what to do about it.
I set out years ago to find a research method that would actually flip that switch in the CEO’s mind. It was obvious when I had succeeded, but I didn’t write a book about my method until I had thoroughly tested and perfected it.
The basic idea is that you conduct in-depth phone interviews of people who have already bought from you. I talk to current customers rather than potential customers whenever I can, because current customers have experience with the company and can tell you what happened to them as they tried to buy – and afterwards.
If you were asked what you think of Mercedes cars, but had never bought one, you’d have some opinions, but they wouldn’t be based on personal experience. You wouldn’t have a lot to say. However, if you had bought a Mercedes, you’d have plenty to say about your personal buying, driving, and service experience. Not to mention what you now tell others who are considering buying a Mercedes. The CEO of Mercedes would learn a lot from what you said.
I record my phone interviews, telling the person that I am recording, but that I am going to transcribe and then “anonymize” their comments. This promise of anonymity, which I always keep, satisfies the customer. They open up, and tell me the whole truth.
Phone interviews are more effective than in-person interviews. When face-to-face, the interviewee will be influenced and inhibited by the physical dynamics that always go on between two people meeting in person. The person talking on their phone, sitting their own comfort zone, feels at ease and speaks freely.
I’ve conducted thousands of customer interviews for hundreds of clients. This experience has taught me that once I have talked to 5 to 10 customers of a given type, the truth will have emerged. There is no doubt in my mind, after conducting this seemingly small number of interviews, what the big issues are. Customers definitely agree on the problems, desires, trends, and concerns that they associate with your company, products, services, and competition.
What will that person say? The kinds of things that will burst the CEO’s company-centered bubble and show him how customers really think about the company’s products, service, people, processes, and policies. Customers will reveal:
- What they really wanted from the company, and where the company fell short.
- What their biggest challenges are (which represent new product/market opportunities).
- Their complete buying process, including: What they typed into their search engine; how else they may have heard learned about the company (including asking those in their social network); why they bought (which is NEVER what the CEO was thinking); their concerns as they bought; the concerns of others who had to approve of the purchase; how the company tried to address those concerns; why they bought in spite of their remaining concerns; and what happened to them after their purchase.
- What they think of the competition, and what the competition did right or poorly.
- What others say about the company, and what they now say when someone asks them what they think.
- What the CEO could do to improve their buying and ongoing experience.
- The trends in my client’s industry (from their perspective) and the trends in their own industry (which also reveal new opportunities).
I have these interviews transcribed, and I anonymize them as promised. Then I reorganize the comments by subject, so that all the responses on a particular subject or issue are in one place. Now the CEO can read what customers had to say, issue by issue, in a well-organized, comprehensible format.
It’s the customer’s own words that flip the switch.
These Customer Conversation reports are long; often 50 to 200 pages. But even the most ADD-afflicted CEO will read every single word. When your own customers spill their guts, telling you what they say about you when you’re “not in the room,” it makes for riveting reading.
If you are in the room when the CEO reads the report, you can literally watch the flip of the switch. They realize, for the first time, that their assumptions have been incorrect – and that those assumptions caused them to make decisions that frustrated and alienated customers. They finally know what their customers’ real problems and preferences are. They’ve taken the first step on the journey from company-centered to customer-centric.
Preparing the reports has a power of its own.
As I anonymize the conversations and organize the comments into categories, I am literally immersed in the customers’ world. This helps me build the Summary and Recommendations Reports.
The Summary identifies the issues customers mention the most – and feel most strongly about – and the biggest opportunities open to us. These are the issues that we need to work on first. In the Recommendations report, I describe the best method to solve each of these problems, primarily using the resources my clients already have.
I don’t have to guess about what the solutions might be. I’ve gotten to the point in my career where, if you show me a business problem involving revenue and customers, I know exactly what to do to solve it, given the specific resources and real-life restrictions (budgets, talent, time, etc.) that my client is dealing with.
First we work on the low-hanging fruit - the problems that will have the biggest impact and can be solved quickly. Solving these problems leads to increased sales, which will finance the solutions to the remaining problems that require more resources to correct.
Employees are retrained or occasionally replaced as necessary. Very often, among the current staff, there are people ready to take on new positions to fill in the gaps that the survey reveals. Everyone receives new marching orders to ensure their actions meet the customers’ expectations. If new people are needed, I find the best ones, then help them get started.
Weak systems and processes are improved or replaced. The company’s branding and competitive positioning are changed to match customer perceptions and expectations. The company’s website is reorganized so that whenever a prospective customer comes to the website, they immediately find what they’re looking for, without having to dig. The company’s social activity is altered so that it supports the customer’s buying process and service needs.
My real long-term value to CEOs, beyond the research method, is the guidance I give them after the results are presented. That’s why I’m “giving away” this CEO-mind-changing method in Roadmap to Revenue, including detailed instructions on how to conduct the interviews, the reporting process, and what to do with the information after it’s been gathered. I don’t need to keep the method to myself.
Anyone who has been tasked with bringing the voice of the customer back into the organization can use this research method. They will actually see the veil lift and the wheels start turning in the right direction. And, there’s a nice side benefit: Whoever does conduct these interviews and present the results to management will elevate their own status in the CEO’s mind.
As Amanda Kaiser said in her review of the book:
“I heard Kristin speak at a MarketingProfs webinar and then purchased Roadmap to Revenue. I’m conducting interviews with our customers right now and the process has been very insightful. In fact, it far exceeded my expectations. After conducting 10 interviews I can already see the ways to improve our policies and processes. In addition, many new product ideas and product improvements have come out of these conversations. I think these customer insights will help me positively influence my organization’s future direction.
“Thank you to Kristin for sharing her process. I highly recommend Roadmap to Revenue – it has shown me a great way to get in touch with my customers and has helped me determine how we can better help them.”