Just Ask the Customers - Innovation is Easier Said Than Done

"Wow, this isn't as easy as you would think." 

That was one of the comments I overhead many times last week when our client asked the members of their Advisory Council to participate in an Innovation Workshop at a recent global meeting in Mallorca, Spain.

Members were walked through the process of innovating new products and services using a series of notecards that contained the various building blocks needed to take a product from concept to completion.  The building blocks included product specifications, business models, distribution, value proposition and marketing.

Members were divided into small groups and began by defining the problem that needed to be solved.  They were then given time to address the various components critical to developing a product/solution that they would then "pitch" to the remaining members as well as the host team.  After the pitch, each team would allocate their play money to the newly-developed product that they felt would provide them with the most value in their respective organizations.  Based on the total dollars allocated per product, the host team annointed the winners and presented them with lovely gift baskets.

Some comments from members included:

"Wow, I have a whole new appreciation for what goes into developing a new solution."

"This wasn't as easy as I thought it would be."

"There is so much more that goes into this - no wonder these things take time."

Most of the time, these meetings are about assuring that the host team leaves with market insight.  But every now and then, it's not so bad when the council members leave with a little insight of their own.


CEOs Prioritize Customer Intimacy Like Never Before

Today I read an article from Business Week about the recently released IBM study, "What Chief Executives Really Want."


The part that jumped out to me the most after reading the entire study, (no doubt a testimonial to my frame of reference), is the following:

"The most successful orgnizations co-create products and services with customers and integrate customers into core processes."  

It goes on to say, "They are adopting new channels to engage and stay in tune with customers.  By drawing more insight from the available data, successful CEOs make customer intimacy their Number One priority."

It's very exciting to see this priority come to life in the Customer Programs we implement with our clients.  Syed Hasan, President of Sales - Americas at Springer had this to say with regard to the co-creation of products:

"Having pre-validated ideas from our Advisory Council members helps accelerate acceptance within our organization, and that in turn, helps us go to market faster.  Beating out the competition can be seen as a direct result of getting market insight at a very early stage."

The IBM study further confirms the priority noted by CEOs of reinventing customer relationships.  "CEOs said that ongoing engagement and co-creation with customers produce differentiation.  They consider the information explosion to be their greatest opportunity in developing deep customer insights."

The sheer power of engaging customers is obvious.  Working with those who actually commit to it is nothing short of inspiring.

Two Ears, One Mouth -- Good Rule of Thumb when Engaging Customers

I just returned from an inaugural meeting with a well-known tech company that engaged select CIOs and CTOs from the large enterprise customer segment of their organization.  It was a hugely successful start to their Advisory Council initiative and the feedback from both the client execs and customers was among the best we have ever seen with regard to first meetings.

The overwhelming feedback from the CxO's was that the host organization did a phenomenal job of listening to their input.  But more specifically, council members commented that not only did they listen, the host team reiteriated many times that they wanted open, honest feedback and despite some things that were probably not what they wanted to hear, it was received without any defensiveness or counter points.

Members also commented that it was a sign of true commitment that the leadership team was there, fully engaged and really open to honest feedback.  When asked on a post-meeting survey what the members valued most about the advisory council meeting, comments included:
 "The open dialogue and the genuine openness to listening to our inputs and feedback."

"This gave me the insight to undersand their direction with services and future strategy, which I will consider for the future."

"I believe that they really cared about the feedback and that they will consider
the suggested changes."

The key, however, is to make sure that what the host execs heard is considered, and then any resulting actions are communicated back to the council members in a timely fashion.  That will be the proof in the pudding.


Customer Advocacy - A Classic Example

I just returned home from the "Buying and Selling eContent" conference held this week in Phoenix.  I had the opportunity to partner on a presentation regarding Customer Engagement with George Scotti, Director of Channel Marketing for Springer, one of the largest publishers in the areas of Science, Technology and Medical.

What was so much fun about this presentation was that the presentation itself was a classic example of what we were preaching, so to speak.  George had asked us to join him in this event, giving us a tremendous opportunity to engage with our customer on a national platform.  Additionally, three Springer customers also presented with us, validating Springer and speaking on their behalf.  

This event was a great opportunity for all of us to tell the story of how Springer has benefitted from their customer engagement initiatives, including their global advisory boards and summit series.  In addition to aligning to the market, validating their product pipeline, exploring business models and other key strategic objectives, through their advisory boards Springer has created a large base of customer advocates who regularly participate in activities such as this conference presentation.

"I can't overstate the value we receive by engaging our customers outside the board room," George stated.  "Through our advisory boards, we now have trusted industry leaders telling our story for us.  That has a huge impact, particularly as we introduce new product innovations. "

I want to thank George for affording us the opportunity to participate in this event, and I look forward to more opportunities to partner with Springer in similar forums.


Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is - Becoming a "Trusted" Advisor

A little over a year ago, I attended a Customer Advisory Board meeting in another country.  It was the inaugural meeting of this board, which required an added focus on developing relationships and trust.

At the end of the day-and-a-half long meeting, each member was asked to speak for a few minutes on what they got out of the meeting, where they would like to see improvements, and what was the single most important thing that our client needed to keep in mind moving forward.  Without exception, the members said that our client needed to follow through.  For this group, history has proven that organizations in the same industry as our client have come in, done a dog-and-pony show, promised the moon and the stars and then disappeared, never to be heard from again.  Although the members were not implying that this advisory board meeting was anything of that ilk, they were understandably skeptical.  The meeting had gone extremely well, bonds were formed and they were very excited to keep the dialogue going.  They just wanted to be sure that a letdown was not in their future.

So fast forward to this week.  Twenty-three members of this board from six different Latin American countries are converging in New York City for the second meeting of the board.  At the beginning of the meeting, they will hear of all the actions our client has completed as a result of the meeting last year.  Members will see first-hand how much our client listened, acted upon and valued their feedback.  They will see that the previous meeting was not a one-off and that they are committed to a long-term relationship with each of the attending members as well as the region as a whole.

I am very much looking forward to boarding the plane this week for New York and seeing the further development of these relationships and the strategic insight that will help our client further penetrate this market.

Account Expansion in Growing Market Fueled by Customer Insight

For the second time in the past 10 months, I had the tremendous opportunity to attend an advisory board meeting in the Middle East.  For our client, this is a newly developing market that is reaping significant rewards.

Our first meeting last year in Dubai was an eye-opening experience to say the least.  For our client to learn first-hand of cultural issues, business model expectations, level of technological adoption, etc. was of great value as they enter this geographic region.  Although the board members, for the most part, had not met the leadership team of our client or for that matter, each other, they were amazingly open with their feedback.  The follow-up meeting in Amman, Jordan took this to the next level.  The members were now happy to reconnect with each other and our client, knew what to expect from the meeting, came very prepared and delivered feedback that was even more significant than what they provided in the first meeting.  The discussions were lively, solution-focused and relevant.  The list of action items that resulted will keep our client very busy in the coming months.

It often strikes me that so many organizations enter a new market with perhaps some market research, but without the true voice of the customer as foundation for their strategy development.  Using the approach described above, and then sprinkling in the development of relationships that lead to loyalty, a little bit of inside info and the actual market insight itself, you have everything you need to enter the market successfully and efficiently.  There is no lost time on misguided strategies or product development miscues - just solid footing for increased revenue and market share.


Market Alignment - Round Hole, Square Peg Syndrome

I recently participated in an interview with a CEO who had taken over after the company's Board of Directors ousted the previous guy.  Apparently indifference to the customers and short-sightedness were not attributes the board had hoped for in their chief visionary.

This company had not seen growth nor profitability since its inception through year six.  There were a lot of reasons for this, but one of the biggest problems was a complete disregard for the importance of engaging their customers.  According to the current CEO, their customers had been alienated and had no interest in falling into the category of "strategic customers."  He added that the previous company philosophy was based on a "Build it and they will come" mentality.

According to the current CEO - "Mapping out a strategy for ongoing partnerships is the key.  Engaging our customers at a strategic level would be the core philosophy for successfully transforming the business."

The results have been phenomenal, and more details on that will follow.  But suffice it to say, that in June of 2009, a D&B survey of customers rated this company higher than all of its competitors in EACH of the following NINE categories:
  1.   How reliably this company follows through on its commitments
  2.   How closely final total costs correspond to expectations at the beginning of the transaction
  3.   How well the service matched specifications and quality
  4.   Satisfaction with timeliness of the service
  5.   Satisfaction with the quality of the service provided by this company
  6.   How easy this company is to do business with
  7.   Satisfaction based on attitude, courtesy and professionalism of this company’s staff
  8.   Satisfactory customer support received from this company
  9.   How responsive this company was to information requests, issues or problems that arose. 

None of the above can be successfully executed without having an effective means for engaging the customers and understanding their needs and expecations.  Clearly, listening to the voice of the customer now allows the company to reap the rewards.


You are Invited! Transforming your B2B Organization

I wanted to extend an invitation to our readers to attend an event sponsored by the Northern California chapter of the Business Marketing Association featuring our Vice President of Client Services, Rob Urbanowicz.

Transformational B2B Success - Aligning your organization for growth and profitability through revolutionary customer engagement programs.

How do you plan to hold your top line sales and bottom line results in these challenging times?

Plan to join us as we explore innovative ideas that position sales and marketing to drive results.  We will share real situations to demonstrate the impacts that innovative customer engagement programs can have on your B2B organization along with proven approaches to:
  • Align your organization to the market to develop business strategies and galvanize sales and marketing relationships

  • Engage your most valuable customers in highly relevant and meaningful ways that differentiate you from other providers and systematically build deeper relationships and sales penetration

  • Link "Top Customer" programs with activities that drive retention and identify additional revenue opportunties

  • Connect product leaders to foster defined innovation for successful product development and new porduct launches that achieve revenue and profitability goals.
Your session leaders:

Rob Urbanowicz, Principal, Geehan Group

Ben Kiker - Chief Marketing Officer, Jive Software

Lisa Campbell, Vice President and GM, Geospatial Solutions, Autodesk

September Evening Mixer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
5:30 - 7:00 pm
Santa Clara, California

For more information and to register, go to norcalbma.org/programs/Mixer

Hope to see you there!

A Seat at the Table for Your Strategic Customers

We are just launching a Customer Advisory Board initiative for a new client.  Of course, I enjoy having longstanding relationships with our clients, but there is also a lot of excitement in starting with new names and new faces.

Building a CAB doesn't happen overnight and it takes a lot of thought and a well-planned process to make sure you have the right people serving on the board.  During the Discovery phase, we interview our client execs to get their insights on the following:
  • key strategic objectives
  • most value in the marketplace
  • top initiatives in next 3-5 years
  • largest challenges they face
  • customer segment that can provide answers/information
  • measures of success
Once we have the priority issues defined, we can then begin the process of recruiting the most strategic customers that can help drive the objectives forward and provide key market insights.  This is when it really gets fun!

Finding those people - the ones who not only can, but will, provide our clients with the insights they need is like working a puzzle.  It requires looking at the big picture as well as making sure that each individual piece fits well together.  And it requires patience.  We don't want numbers -- we want the right people.

We start our executive interviews today with this new client.  It will be exciting to see this picture start to unfold.


Three Cheers for Marketing ROI and Profitable Customer Relationships

Wow, what an exciting day!

A little background first - One of our clients has engaged us this year to develop and execute summits where people in their industry get together to discuss issues and opportunities in their respective arenas.  We held a summit in Boston in March and one in New York City in May.  This has been a very successful initiative that has posted an outstanding ROI.  A large majority of the participants have moved through the sales funnel from prospects to leads, and some have closed business within 30 days of the summits.

From our client:  "The ROI on this has been huge.  Among others, we had one very significant deal close and it can be directly attributed to this summit."

The sales people are turning cartwheels at the opportunity to gather all their prospects, leads and customers in one room to have open, yet structured dialogue relating to the products and services they sell, yet this event is anything but a sales function.  Rather, it is a chance for people to become more educated and interact with their peers.  There is no sales pitch involved.  None.

However, as is the case for most everyone on the planet, budgets are tight.  The desire to conduct more of these summits is huge, but the funding for such get-togethers is not.  So, on to Plan B.

Today with our client, we held their first "Virtual" summit via WebEx.  In all but a few respects, this online summit very closely mirrored our Boston and New York summits.  We had a Keynote speaker, a panel discussion and breakout sessions complete with white board functionality.  Our client even had a box lunch delivered via FedEx to all of the participants!  Of course there are things you do differently with this format, but at the end of the day, we had interactive dialogue, and the post-summit surveys completed by the attendees point out that it was another successful function.  We will know more in 30 days as we complete the ROI analysis, but early indicators look good.

So I guess the bottom line is, you can't just say, "We don't have any money, so I guess we can't engage our customers."  When the economy hands you lemons, find a way to make lemonade.  At the end of the day, your customers need to hear from you and you need to hear from them, no matter what the financial constraints might be.

Oh, as a post script, an unforeseen but very cool thing also happened.  During the summit, one of the attendees was Twittering about what a great conference she was attending.  So she was pushing out to her audience what a great job our client was doing via this summit.  You can't ask for a better customer advocate than one who takes it upon herself to tell your story live as it happens.

Let me know if you want more information about this.  It really rocked!