Industryweek 14031 Voiceofthecustomer

Take Advice From Your Customers

Oct. 17, 2012
Getting good advice is often as hard as is taking advice, but there are two areas in which the investment is likely to pay off, both now and over the longer term. And, in both instances, it’s quite likely that advice-givers can be identified who are capable of pointing your firm in the right direction.

Author John Steinbeck once said, “No one wants advice -- only corroboration." That statement is true for most of us as individuals, and the truth of that statement often extends into the business environment. I doubt that anyone reading this article would have any difficulty in recalling multiple instances in which executives went down a path that was contrary to the advice that they were receiving from friends, customers, employees, investors and others.

In a recent discussion about such one such unfortunate situation, a colleague cited an insight provided by Star Trek’s Captain Kirk: 

One of the advantages of being a captain is being able to ask for advice without necessarily having to take it.”

There are a few reasons why now is the time to look for advice and to think seriously about whether to take it. A Sept. 12 article in IndustryWeek spotlighted manufacturers’ concerns about the uncertain business environment they were facing. 

A quick search online provides a long roster of topics that are creating uncertainties heading into the next year -- the political environment, the fiscal cliff, the wave of new regulations, supply chain disruptions, the prospects for markets from Europe to China, the availability of credit -- the list goes on and on.

Getting good advice is often as hard as is taking advice, but there are two areas in which the investment is likely to pay off, both now and over the longer term. And, in both instances, it’s quite likely that advice-givers can be identified who are capable of pointing your firm in the right direction.

Ask Customers Questions

The first recommendation is that you ask your best customers the question, “What are we doing that isn’t creating value for you?” 

I recently had the opportunity to ask that question on behalf of a client, and many of the answers that surfaced came as complete surprises to the client’s executive team.

There were a few examples of “we’ve always done that, always assuming it was a good idea, but it’s been years and years since we actually gave it any thought” and other examples of “I’m not even sure why we do that.”  The vast majority of the suggestions that surfaced motivated a relook at product features and business practices on the part of this firm.

The business environment that we will face over the next few years is likely to challenge firms to identify how to eliminate unnecessary product features and services -- and their costs -- in order to remain competitive. This will be especially true as competitors from emerging economies enter western markets with “almost as good products at a great price point.”  Remaining competitive and improving margins by reducing unnecessary spending is always a good idea, but one that is perhaps more urgent now than ever.

Globalization Insights

The second motivation for seeking advice involves the reality that most firms will be heading into uncharted waters as they seek to grow in the coming years. That most certainly involves a shift in their served markets toward emerging economies like China, India, Brazil and many others. 

But today’s business environment also involves more and more pressure to surround products with services to bring a “solutions offer” to customers, create an information-rich product offering, work with unfamiliar suppliers and respond to customers’ demands for products that are increasingly engineered to order. 

All such changes to a firm’s business model are demanding and often require competencies that are outside of the firm’s traditional areas of expertise.

Most businesses have learned the value associated with hearing messages from the market and have put into place voice of the customer programs and other initiatives to gain insights from suppliers, channel partners, and customers at all stages of the customer chain. 

But when sailing into uncharted waters that require fundamental changes to a firm’s business model, advice that brings lessons from other environments can yield the same, high-quality contributions.

It is critical to recognize that other firms, often in very diverse industries from the one in which your firm participates, have often learned to navigate the same waters into which you are heading, and can provide advice from their past successes (and mistakes) that can make your own journey smoother. 

The uncertainties of today’s business environment won’t quickly go away, and insights that can contribute to your success in grappling with them can yield a major payoff.  Soliciting advice from customers and learning from the experiences of others can become an important ingredient in your quest to achieve success despite the complexities that you face.

George F. Brown, Jr. is the CEO and cofounder of Blue Canyon Partners Inc., a consulting firm working with leading business suppliers on growth strategy. Along with Atlee Valentine Pope, he is the author of "CoDestiny: Overcome Your Growth Challenges by Helping Your Customers Overcome Theirs," published by Greenleaf Book Group Press of Austin, Texas.

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