B2B Strategy Case Files: What If Both B2B and B2C?

When we wrote The B2B Executive Playbook, I had every hope it would forever change the hearts of minds of B2B enterprise.  Recently, however, my colleague and B2B strategy guru @seangeehan received the following email from “Still B2Cing," so I guess our work is not completely done.

 

Oh yes, we’ve seen this situation many times, and it is particularly pernicious as the challenge lies on two fronts:

  1. The overall enterprise has both B2B and B2C markets, such as a manufacturer who sells both direct to consumer and through a distribution network, as well as a massive organization like GE.  No one could possibly believe the executive who runs the GE lightbulb division has the same approach to growth and profitability as GE Aircraft. Unless the ELT understands the differences, most often we see the executives with the flashier high-profile B2C resumes take charge, and it is most often a disaster for the B2B side of the business. Hybrid organizations such as these are the most difficult to manage and grow unless you have the right playbook in place for the each side of the business.

  2. Ex-P&Gers who won't or can't adapt (or insert here alumni from most consumer packaged good companies). These proven, smart folks tend to struggle in their transition to most non-CPG companies, but especially when they move to B2B.  Most of them stick to what they know, apply the same go-to-market methodology/formula, and expect similar results.

The most common example of hybrids are financial institutions who have both consumer and commercial segments.  Because the hybrid situation is so prevalent there, we showcase Wells Fargo in The B2B Executive Playbook and how they address their hybrid organization, particularly the B2B side.  They have adapted specific B2B practices to address the commercial side of their business. Very smart.

Other industries that commonly have both B2B and B2C markets and offerings include hotel and hospitality, as well as computer and technology (Microsoft, Symantec, Dell).  Let’s take Dell for example. After successfully making B2C history selling PCs to consumers, as a growth strategy Dell began acquiring B2B firms (middleware, integrators, etc.) and building solutions for B2B customers (e.g., mainframes).  However, they did not change their go-to-market strategy and approached CIOs fairly similar to how they marketed to college students.  It didn’t work, and eventually Dell went private after stock tumbled. Our company, along with Dell’s biggest corporate customers, tried very hard to get them to understand that a different approach was needed. The CMO didn’t agree (ex-major CPG executive) despite our very “dynamic” conversations.  Suffice it to say, that CMO is no longer there, which is the unfortunate outcome we have seen for so many talented B2C executives. 

Facing similar challenges, both IBM and GE have all but left the B2C world, and one reason is they found it difficult to do both successfully for mostly the same reasons as other B2B/B2C hybrids.  Either you invest to execute different strategies, or you focus on one. There really isn’t a “one size fits all” solution.

Sean points to another notable example, Cisco. The B2B stalwart tried to get into the B2C market and failed miserably: $4-6B write down and complete shed or shut down of most of their B2C business. 

Sean focuses pretty hard on the topic of differing strategies for the two worlds in chapter two of his book.  The picture below provides a great reference point for where the approach differs between B2B v. B2C, and it primarily lies in go-to-market strategy: marketing, sales, and the biggest buzz-word today, innovation (R&D).

The one key element missing in this picture is service.  Service delivery may overlap or not, depending on industry and model.  The important point is you have to realize there may be key differences which need to be identified and addressed.  For more advice from Sean about this and other B2B strategies, check out his B2B Customer Strategies blog.

So take heart, Still B2Cing, there is hope!  Experience has taught us that if you can convince B2Cers they have landed in a different world AND they are curious and willing enough to learn and adapt to their environment, the path to sustainable, predictable, profitable growth (SPPG) becomes quite clear and straight-forward to navigate.  The missing link is found!

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Thank You, Customer Success, for Uniting Marketing and Finance

“Over the years, I have come to dislike marketers,” a CFO at a $350M company recently told me.  “I have found they just aren’t good business people.”

I couldn’t help but smile and explain to him how his mind was about to change.

During the past several weeks, I've had the opportunity to work with my colleague Sean Geehan and the smart folks at Strikedeck to better understand the nuts and bolts of B2B marketing’s new priority, Customer Success.  Before this time, the Finance snob inside of me assumed “Customer Success” was just another slick label marketing had put on the tried and true function of customer service or the practice of simply following the immortal words of James Cash Penny, “The well-satisfied customer will bring the repeat sale that counts.”

I don’t know who gets credit for the name “Customer Success,” but my cohorts in Finance should scoff no longer.  Despite its glib name, disciplined Customer Success is serious business (over $50 million committed by the US venture community on solution providers), and it can make or break players in the Cloud Subscription XaaS Economy.  According to the Customer Success Association, “Across the SaaS B2B sector, the choice is becoming clear.  You either actively manage your customer relationships as strategic portfolio assets, or you effectively cede control over them and your company’s future to chance and/or the competition.” 

Whoa. Those kind of words place Customer Success at the crux of SaaS company strategy, so much so that the CS Association advises, “The ultimate strategic goal of the Customer Success role is sustainable corporate profitability and growth.  The method is to make your customers as profitable and productive as possible.”  With such an important strategic imperative, Marketing, who has to date been driving most Customer Success initiatives in XaaS companies, is now placed in an even more significant position.  I wonder if these marketers realize their elevated status (most think they are still low men and women on the corporate totem pole), or that to take advantage of it, they get to think again about a group to whom they can't help but feel a gravitational pull: Users.

"The fate of your B2B company rests in the hands of a few people," our team has said for years about the connection between executive decision makers and B2B strategy.  While this is still extremely true, in the SaaS model, users are taking back some of the attention because the adoption and use of their seat licenses have become a significant factor in determining the economic value borne by the purchase of SaaS technologies.  And, more importantly, it has become the onus of sellers and their technology to make sure users adopt and use it.  As such, a subscription based business is probably the closest a B2B organization has been to needing to consider users and their happiness strategically in quite some time. Furthermore, the importance of keeping user cheeks happily in license seats requires Marketing and Customer Success to plan, coordinate, monitor, and possibly even design most of the major functions of service delivery.

As one example, let’s look at one of the primary drivers of adoption and use: training.  In the not-so old days as a user, it was his responsibility to learn and adapt to whatever technology the decision makers several levels above his pay grade chose to purchase and install (I am reminded of a major software conversion required at a major US bank because the CEOs at the two companies golfed together).  To learn the new system, users might get to attend a class or benefit from hands-on training, but many times it came in the form of a set of very large binders through which time had to be found to dig and find answers.  Online training later offered a more efficient Q&A search tool, but again, the content was fairly static (and boring) and nowhere near our modern day definition of “interactive.”  All in all, learning the new system on which a user performed his job was really his responsibility, if he wanted to perform well.  The technology wasn’t going anywhere, or at least until when GAAP said it could.

Today, learning the system is no longer altogether the user’s responsibility.  Users expect the technology either to be intuitive enough so that even a caveman could use it, or to teach them with on-demand “Live Chat” training and quick answers to their questions in forums and chat rooms.  In fact, when I talk to millennials about their jobs, they expect to be taught how and when they want to learn.  If they don’t feel competent quickly enough - or they just don’t like the technology - they just won’t adopt and proceed to influence a move to an alternative.  It’s “There's another app for that” mentality. There is always another app or similar technology that can do the job just as well, but maybe it has better chat rooms with more clever emojis.  When their employers see adoption is low, they can scrap the technology by unsubscribing and moving their data elsewhere.  Gone are the capital expenditures that had to be amortized and force users to use or lose.

The Technology Marketing and Sales research and services company ITMSA recently held its annual Marketing Leadership Forum which included a panel discussion of leaders from Amdocs, Cisco, and Oracle on customer experience and customer success and the role marketing must take in both functions.  In his summary of the session, ITMSA President CEO Dave Munn notes the perspective of Steve Pinedo, vice president, Oracle Global Cloud Customer Success, “the shift to the cloud is driving dramatic changes in customer expectations for technology based solutions, with new demands for immediate and frictionless support and value at every stage of the relationship.  From a marketing perspective, this puts customer success front and center, and makes reducing customer churn the number one KPI.”

Customer Churn.  This is where the finance nerd inside me really takes notice.  As Sean wrote in his recent post "Customer Success: Applying Science to the Art of Customer Engagement," churn (the rate at which customers leave) is the metric which could finally give marketing and customer engagement a measurement by which these efforts have a benchmark, and benchmarks mean funding and more importantly, credibility and stature with The ELT. 

Armed with churn rates, Marketing may now have the words Finance has longed to hear.  Whenever Sean and I speak to a group of CFOs or financial leaders, we remind them of their right to demand ROI on the investments they make in marketing.  Unfortunately, their marketing peers have struggled to find an irrefutable number by which they can say, “Our programs elevated our position to Leader in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant,” or even, “Our efforts contributed to raising our market cap.”  The churn rate statistic erases this previous shortcoming as the metric becomes more heavily weighted in technology evaluations and company valuations.  Marketing leaders can now say, “Our Customer Success Program, with its new onboarding engagement plan, has lowered our churn rate and brought us a new round of venture funding.”  With this type of measurable contribution to the organization’s growth, how can a CEO or CFO not take notice?

Marketing has an excuse no longer to shy away from numbers and figures, and they should embrace this opportunity to take ownership of measuring, monitoring, reporting, and hopefully bragging about their contribution to low churn. This might be an overstatement, or even blasphemy, but marketing finally has a reason to embrace at least one statistic.  And they get to talk about user decision making behavior again.  Win-Win!

I end here by sharing a graphic I found on the Customer Success Association website because I think it effectively ties together the relationship between Customer Success, retention, and profitable growth.  It's a picture to rally around and unify all the corporate languages.

 

 

 

 

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Want to Improve Customer Engagement? Get Personal!

Have you ever read something that rubbed you the wrong way, but you couldn’t quite figure out why? That happened to me earlier this week when I came across a blog post on the Forbes CIO Network,  Written by John Dillon, CEO of Engine Yard, the premise is that “it’s time for business leaders to take a closer look at new opportunities for improving customer engagement…” and that “information technology is a great place to start.”

I read it four days ago and it has been gnawing at me ever since! I agree and I disagree. Something about it just didn’t sit right with me! My initial reaction was “what a bunch of bologna. You can’t improve customer “engagement” via the cloud!” Or could you?

So I did a little research. I explored the idea of customer engagement. I looked up the definition. I re-discovered a couple of articles I had previously read on the subject. I came to the conclusion that my struggle with this article was not so much the content, but the terminology Dillon uses. He uses the term “customer engagement” the way I use “customer experience.” In my mind, “customer engagement” implies a personal relationship, as in “engaged” to be married.  In my mind, “personal” and “cloud” simply do not go together, which is why I struggled so much with his article. So I read the article again and replaced the word “engagement” with “experience” and “connection.” It made much more sense to me that way, and I now understand what Dillon was saying.

In my mind, the only way to improve customer engagement is to get personal! Why is that so hard to understand!? In a 2010  survey of how marketers view their customer engagement strategies,  Forbes found the following:

  • 97% of survey respondents said their companies viewed the issue of engagement as very (67%) or somewhat (30%) important.
  • 86% said engagement is part of the ongoing conversation between marketing and top corporate leadership.
  • Marketers know that engagement is intrinsically linked to customer loyalty and retention.
  • 72% want repeat purchase behavior
  • 69% want customer advocates
  • 95% want to optimize their engagement with customers

But… they are unclear about how to accomplish it. Many have no specific strategy. 33% rated their current efforts as just fair or poor. Surprising, when asked to assess their various marketing tactics in terms of how deeply they engage customers, 48% of the marketers surveyed indicated that in-person and permission-based methods had the highest engagement. But they still don’t know how to foster deeper engagement? I don’t get it. It seems like a no-brainer to me!

The issue of engagement is important! So, if you want to improve customer engagement, get personal! The cloud and social media are great ways to communicate with your customers and to improve the customer experience, but they are impersonal. To really “engage” with your customers, you need to develop a personal relationship. Reach out to them on a personal level. Get to know them. Get personal!  

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Turning Advisory Council Insights into Actions

We all have our to-do lists.  They include things like register the kids for summer camp, call the bank about the extra service fee that showed up on last month’s bank statement, call insurance company to find out why they didn’t pay for my last trip to the doctor, etc.  We all have a way in which we prioritize that to-do list whether it is by due date, money related items or by some other means.  The companies I work with are faced with similar, albeit more daunting, to-do lists that result from each Advisory Council meeting.   How do they prioritize their to-do list?

Turning the insights and feedback gained from your Advisory Council members into action isn’t an easy task.  We have successfully implemented a process that is more engaging and interactive with our clients through a Market Alignment Planning (MAP) workshop.  As outlined in Sean Geehan’s book, The B2B Executive Playbook, MAP pulls together the inputs from the Advisory Council that will then feed directly into the strategic planning process.  A MAP workshop can turn that to-do list into a manageable list of prioritized actions that reflects the collective voice of your Advisory Council members.

And, since these are your top customers, integrating that input into your strategic planning process, will better align your organization to the needs of the market.

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Why Listen to the Voice of the Customer?

If your organization wants to spearhead continuous improvement, it is absolutely imperative you first identify the major factors that are important to your customers and what motivates them to stay loyal to your business.  We all hear this commonly referred to as "listening to the voice of the customer," and most businesses are willing to go an extra mile to find and identify the voice of the external customer.  Once found, however, what do you do with it?

Improve Retention through Alignment and Closing Gaps. The primary concept of listening to the voice of the customer requires a business to first assess and determine whether a business process is achieving optimum efficiency and, more importantly, reaping maximum returns.  Where customers are generally concerned about the effectiveness of a particular process, businesses tend to focus more on optimizing the efficiency of their process.  Listening to the voice of the customer helps close that gap so you don't continue to improve upon something your customers will eventually retire or replace because it does not meet their business needs.

Improve Product and Service Development. Through regular discussions and brief interactive sessions, businesses are able to collect invaluable information and details on the most important needs of their customers. The business can then deploy resources to mold generic needs of customers into specific products and services, sometimes known as “critical-to-quality” requirements or CTQs. The business can then analyze the new product or service to establish whether the CTQs are aligned with the requirements of the customers.

The Voice is a Chorus, Not a Solo.  When seeking out and listening to the voices of your customers, use caution when relying upon one or two strong altos or sopranos.  All too often, a customer can inadvertently use its influence and purchasing power to enlist support of its own needs, which may not necessarily be the needs of a large share of your market.  To avoid sinking R&D dollars into an initiative that only one or two customers will buy, organize a customer advisory board or council to facilitate interaction between your executives and a group of customer decision makers who represent a larger segment of the market.  Listening to a group of decision makers together allows businesses to gain insight into the requirements of a collective of customers in order to effectively identify and translate their needs into meaningful and profitable results.

In order to achieve long-term sustainable growth, a business must have the capacity to effectively identify and listen to the collective voice of the customer through ongoing, interactive sessions.  As obvious as it may sound, customers will play a crucial role in the overall development of the business as well as its long-term success - as long as you are willing to listen to them.

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Six Best Practice Tips for Facilitating a Customer Advisory Board Meeting

 

The Importance of the Facilitator RoleSituation:  Your agenda is finalized, your content is crisp, your members have confirmed, all hotel details are taken care of, and you are ready for a great Customer Advisory Board (CAB) meeting.  You even have an expert facilitator to emcee the meeting.  All is in order ... or is it?

Reality Check:  A well-facilitated CAB meeting requires an experienced facilitator who is familiar with the host company's industry, is able to adapt to unexpected changes, and has the right tools to keep sessions engaging and interesting.  When working with your internal tFacilitatoream and facilitator, consider the following:

 

  1. In addition to the facilitator, will you have the right Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in the room to respond to specific questions? 
  2. Have you developed interactive sessions that will foster dialog among members and the host team? If so, make sure your facilitator has the right tools to run those sessions.
  3. Have you given consideration to the best way to capture member feedback? How many team members will be assisting with capturing that feedback? Facilitators have to concentrate on the mechanics of the session while thinking ahead to the next question. Having a team member who is familiar with the content and context of the discussions to assist with note taking is always helpful.
  4.  Will there be breakout sessions (smaller group discussions) running simultaneously?  If so, be sure to assign a facilitator and note taker to each session.  
  5. Flipcharts are your friend in CAB meetings, so be sure to have plenty on hand.  Take a quick survey of the meeting room early and decide how you will display the flipcharts.
  6.  Be sure your facilitator knows your customers' personalities and set expectations for him/her.  Identify those who may be particularly vocal or a bit shy - a good facilitator will know how to ensure balanced participation across the group.

Conclusion:  You should be able to count on your facilitator to keep the energy level high, setting the pace for the meeting.  They should also understand the "power of the pen" and the importance of recording the participants' words (not necessarily all of them) instead of their own.  And finally, they should be able to carry the group through the process of each session - smoothly transitioning from one topic to the next, using check points along the way, giving accurate, clear and concise instructions. 
 

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Six Keys to Structuring a Winning CAB Agenda

In my last blog, Drafting an Engaging Agenda, I shared some best practices to ensure your Customer Advisory Board (CAB) agenda includes the right mix of content to be valuable to the internal team as well as customer attendees. This blog will focus on another important element of agenda planning - hpuzzle pieceow to structure the content for a logical flow of the meeting agenda. 

There is a real art to properly structuring a CAB agenda.  At times, it reminds me of a jigsaw puzzle – trying to fit all the pieces into just the right spot. Here are six elements, and the flow of those elements, to include for a winning CAB agenda:

  1. Welcome the Members - the executive sponsor should kick-off the meeting with a welcome and thanks to the members for joining the Advisory Board.
  2. Set the Stage - your first session should be a strategy update including any new issues the company is addressing. This is also a good time to provide a report on progress made, including any between-meeting work with members. This opening/strategy should last about 30-45 minutes, with another 15-20 minutes for Q&A (total of 45-60 minutes).
  3. Get the Members Talking - after the strategy update, plan a session that gets members talking. For example, you could solicit "hot topics" from the group and have them vote on the most compelling ones. Tee-up a few key questions on those and allow the conversation to flow. 
  4. Consider Breakout Groups - this is another way to get members talking. Consider dividing the group into smaller breakout groups. Each could tackle a different “hot topic.”  Leave time at the end to bring the groups back together and have 1-2 members from each group report back so everyone can benefit from the discussions. Breakout discussions usually go 45-60 minutes with 15 minutes at the end for sharing feedback.
  5. Allow Plenty of Time - don't try to squeeze too many sessions into the agenda. The beauty of an Advisory Board is the input from the members and the opportunity to hear the "voice of the customer."  A feedback session should be 45-60 minutes; for deeper dives, 60-90 minutes. Spend the first 5-10 minutes for the introduction (explanation of topic) and review the key questions. The remaining time should be spent listening, probing, etc
  6. Give Generous Breaks - your customers are busy executives who have taken time out of their schedules to participate on your CAB. Be sure to sprinkle breaks in the morning and afternoon so they have a chance to check emails or make a few calls.  Stay on time, consider giving an extra 15-30 minutes at lunch, and try to allow 1 1/2-2 hours between the last session and dinner.

When structuring your agenda, be sure to “mix it up” – alternate breakouts and full-group discussions, and consider including a member case study or a panel discussion on industry trends/issues. A variety of formats will keep the energy level up and members will stay more engaged.

We've helped many companies including HCL, Springer, AmerisourceBergen, Savvis, Autodesk, LexisNexis, and more, create winning agendas using these methodologies. Structuring your agenda using these elements ensures good meeting flow and will keep members actively involved in conversations!

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5 Things To Do to Prepare for your Next Customer Advisory Council Meeting

I recently came across an article by Tom Searcy, Break down a Sales Presentation like an ESPN Analyst, where he suggests that you prepare for a sales meeting the same way ESPN’s analysts prepare for their pre-game shows: do the match-up analysis, know the stats, identify the 1-2 things to win,  calculate the risks; and, understand the game-changers.  Dare I say this is relevant to a Customer Advisory Council meeting, as well?

ESPNNow we all know, or at least we should, that Customer Advisory Council meetings are not intended to include sales presentations and that anything that even hints at selling is a recipe for disaster. Don’t do it…. ever.  Resist the temptation at all costs as you will lose the trust of your board members and could cause irreparable damage to your existing relationships.

That said, members of your executive team should indeed, do these five things to prepare for a Customer Advisory Council meeting:

  1. Do the match-up analysis. Take time prior to the meeting, perhaps en-route to the meeting destination so it’s good and fresh, to review the profile and photo of each member. Knowing each member's responsibilities, background, and interests will help you connect with them on a more personal basis and help you introduce them to their fellow Council members. Additionally, during the Prep Session, assign an executive to serve as “host” to 1-2 Advisory Council members, especially if they are new to the group.
  2. Know the stats. Review company profiles, financials, recent news and press releases, and have an understanding of the volume and types of business they do with you. This information will help you better understand their perspectives on key issues discussed during the meeting.
  3. Identify the 1-2 things to win. Since these are your top customers, chances of good that you have deals pending. Know what they are, what it will take to win them, and any other opportunities that may be coming your way.
  4. Calculate the risks. Likewise, know if there are any unresolved customer-service issues that may come up in conversation. You don’t want to be caught off-guard and ill-prepared to address them if they do.
  5. Understand the game-changers.  Know who the other key leaders are and how your Advisory Board Members may influence them. 
In other words, prepare for the meeting like ESPN’s analysts prepare for their pre-game show. Know the elements of the game… the strengths and weaknesses of the players, and their team’s strategies and statistics. The “pre-game” analysis will be worth your time. It will provide more direct focus for your interactions with members, will lead to a better understanding of their perspectives, and will ultimately lead to a win! Go Team!  
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Customer Advisory Board Meeting Tip: Help Members Participate Effectively through Professional Facilitation

During a recent meeting with a prospective client, conversation turned to the need for a professional facilitator for an upcoming advisory board meeting.  He was considering having a member of his leadership team play that role and wanted to know what we thought. In some ways, having an internal facilitator is a good idea. He/she may be a subject matter expert and may already have some level of relationship with advisory board members. But it’s risky. There is much more to gain from bringing in a professional facilitator from outside the company.

Sure, anyone can run a meeting. But running a meeting well and in such a way that uncovers key insights is a whole other issue! Remember, advisory board members are your top clients. Every meeting with them should be executed flawlessly.  Every interaction should be well-structured to deliver rich insight and focused dialogue. Every moment should be well spent. This is not a time or place for an amateur!

wordleWe would all like to think that advisory board members will come to meetings well prepared, eager to participate, and ready to function like a team. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Your members are busy executives who still have major responsibilities back home. And as much as we provide them with information on how to participate most effectively (see Tips for Advisory Board Members below), they may still come into the meeting ill prepared. They may be hesitant to voice their opinions or need to step out for a conference call. They may arrive late and leave early. They may stray from the topic, be disruptive, negative or overly emotional. When dysfunctions like these happen, as they surely will, you will want an unbiased, skilled facilitator who can prevent and/or diffuse what could be an uncomfortable situation. After all, professional facilitators have the necessary skills and are prepared to manage dysfunction.   

So if you’re considering having a team member facilitate your upcoming advisory board meeting, think again. Is it really worth the risk?



Tips for Advisory Board Members
  • Read ALL materials prior to the event.  Write questions in the margins.  Highlight key ideas, areas you don’t agree with, and points that concern you.  Review and scan to stay fresh.
  • Make an effort to meet everyone prior to the meeting session, especially if there is an opening reception.  Meeting your peers prior to the meeting helps the meeting itself move along more quickly.
  • Be brief and concise with your comments so conversation keeps moving and everyone can have an opportunity to contribute.
  • Ask questions that bring out depth behind the comments.
  • When possible, try to remain for and participate in optional social activities.  Getting to know fellow members helps for in-session success.
  • Constructive criticism is welcome.  Even greater value is gained when a solution is offered for host consideration.
  • The host organization asked you to be on the Advisory Board because you impressed someone with your talent and insight.  Leveraging your customer status will diminish your credibility and frustrates your fellow Advisory Board Members.
  • Stay engaged throughout the meeting.  You would be surprised what information you can learn, relationships you can forge, and influence you can extend during refreshment breaks.
  • On occasion, some have found their emotions taking over.  In those instances, take a mental break.  You can always reach out to the facilitator at a break.  He/she may be able to help guide the conversation more appropriately to avoid an uncomfortable situation.

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2012 Planning - A Golden Opportunity

Have you ever experienced a “moment of fame” when everything you need for your business to succeed comes together perfectly?   It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s “golden!” 
What if you were able to take those “moments of fame” and make them a consistent practice within your organization?  Customer Engagement Programs provide the opportunity to do just that.

Recently, my client experienced one of those moments.  After conducting an Advisory Council meeting with the decision makers of his most strategic customers, he gained invaluable insight into the market, learning what his customers need, and what they are looking for from his organization.

As a member of the executive team, he walked into a strategic planning meeting with the CEO and his peers, armed with information no one else had—even better, it was validated by his most strategic customers:

  • Sunset a core product in mid-term development – a savings of $8 dollars in future development, marketing, sales, and service, not to mention resources that can be devoted to high impact products.
  • Eliminate a new solution from the product roadmap – a total savings of $3 dollars, six months in development and valuable resources.
  • Get positioned to make an acquisition – of an innovative services company.

Gaining insight from your top customers provides a tremendous amount of confidence to participate in your organization’s planning process.  Sharing this information among the leadership team was a “moment of fame” for my client.  His CEO responded, “I’m so impressed by your knowledge this early in our planning process.  You are months ahead of your peers.”

When it comes to internal planning make no mistake—you are competing with your peers for resources and dollars to make the best decisions for the organization.  As you prepare for 2012, part of your plan should include gaining market insight at a decision maker level with your most strategic customers. 

In Sean Geehan’s book, The B2B Executive Playbook, he explains in detail how the market can provide insight, and help validate the following four areas (see diagram below):

  • vennYour “Exploit Solutions” – those areas that align to your business model and for which you have a core competency – in other words, what you do well.
  • Where you should “Evolve” – the market is telling you they want something that is in your core competency, but it is not part of your business model today. 
  • What you should “Acquire” – the market is telling you they want something that would fit into your business model, but you don’t have a core competency for it.  This is an opportunity to gain additional insight for potential companies to acquire.
  • Areas to “Evaluate” – this is something that is part of your business model and it is a core competency, but the market is not willing or interested in buying it.  This is an area you should look to eliminate or sunset the solution or product.

Validate Your Plan with Your Most Important Customers

My client learned that the best way to capture the areas outlined above was through his Advisory Council.  The value of a well-managed Advisory Council is that they can help you capture strategy, marketing, sales, service, product, and merger/acquisition information all at the same time.   

At their inaugural Council meeting, members were presented three specific initiatives for feedback.  The first was a legacy product they had for years—a “me too” in the market. The second was a new product they were getting pressure from sales to develop.  And finally, the third was to look at potential acquisition targets that would fit their business model, but for which they did not currently have a core competency.

The result of the feedback is what my client shared with his leadership team outlined in the beginning of this article.  And it saved his company over $10 million … all from listening to his customers.

Make 2012 a great year by seizing your Golden Opportunity.  Engage the decision makers of your most strategic customers to gain valuable market insight to help drive your strategic planning.

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