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Your customers are telling you what they want. Are you listening?

Picture of an ear and a question mark. A month or so ago, I had a rather unexpected experience at a high-street electrical retailer.   Having decided that I wanted to buy a new laptop, I visited some stores to weigh up my options.  After all, there’s no substitute for seeing the build quality before making a purchase.   Since I spend a lot of time travelling, one of my key requirements is a quick start-up time – this makes it easy to quickly get the laptop up and running when travelling by train or in an airport.


So, with anticipation, I entered the store and headed for the computing section. After a few moments of browsing the laptops, I was greeted by a friendly but over-zealous sales person.


 “Hi there, can I help you?  Are you interested in buying a laptop today?”  the salesperson asked.


I explained my requirements, and explained how important a quick boot-up time was. Before I could even finish my sentence, the salesperson excitedly proclaimed:


“You’re in luck — we’ve got the exact model for you, and it’s on special offer today!”


Over the years I’ve grown rather cynical about “special offers”, so I didn’t have very high expectations, but I was really surprised.  The laptop on offer really did seem to be good value.   It didn’t seem to boot particularly quickly, but I could probably live with it.  After weighing up the options, I decided to buy it, and the salesperson excitedly scurried off into the stock room so that the sale could be finalised.

Two minutes later, they returned


“Oh, I forgot to mention, along with the laptop, we’d recommend that you buy an antivirus subscription.  There are so many viruses and malware infections out there! Do you want the one year plan….?”


I thanked the salesperson, but explained that actually, I already had a spare antivirus licence that I could use.  The salesperson went back to the stock room to collect my laptop.  Five minutes later, they returned, box in hand, ready to take me to the cash register.  Before we reached the register, there was a pause.


“Before you buy this laptop, I really must insist that you take the antivirus software, you’re in real danger if you don’t….”


I explained again that I already had a licence.   The salesperson continued stead-fast in their goal of selling it to me.


We carried on in a doom-loop of a repeating conversation until eventually I gave up.  I firmly but politely walked away, explaining that if they wouldn’t sell me the laptop without a subscription that I didn’t want, then I wouldn’t buy it at all.    The sales person apologised profusely, and followed me out of the shop desperately trying to ‘close the deal’.   They didn’t succeed.


The benefit of an external or objective analysis viewpoint

There were clearly a number of things wrong in the organisation I mentioned above, and it would probably be possible to write a book (as opposed to a blog article) about it! However, one key consideration that this experience reminded me of is the importance of listening to the customer and ensuring that data and insight about the customer’s needs and wants are collected as a matter of course.  Whilst this might sounds like an obvious thing to say the sad reality is that situations like this – although perhaps not quite so blatant – happen in many organisations.  There are so many great opportunities to listen to customers that get missed.


Taking the example above, I would guess that the retailer in question was very good at measuring sales but I’d bet they didn’t record lost sales and near misses.    If they had the ability to record and the analytical capability to understand this data, I suspect they would change their ‘hard sell’ approach.   Whilst it might work in some cases, selling products that the customer doesn’t want or need is going to create a rather transactional relationship and is unlikely to result in repeat business!  So often this short-sightedness becomes a limiting factor.  As the old expression proclaims: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten”.


Extending on this metaphor, it can be extremely useful for companies to pay attention to the items that customers ask for which aren’t stocked.  This might present an opportunity to move into other product lines or meet additional customer needs.  It can also be useful to consider which items sell well together (a supermarket stocking Gin and Tonic may well sell more of both if they place the two closer together).    With so many seemingly unconnected variables, this needs focussed analysis and it can be difficult to see from the inside.


It can be extremely beneficial when an objective team member– whether an analyst, consultant or independent managed service provider—looks at a situation like this and provides objective recommendations on how technology, process, or organisational changes could help drive better business outcomes.   An important first step involves collecting data – understanding  where things are working, where they are going wrong, and then analysing that data.   Developing these types of analysis and analytic capabilities drives real benefit and there can be a clear business case for them.  Having the ability to assess what is happening in the business (and the business environment) and respond to it better or faster than competitors is crucial, and well worth the investment.    An objective or external viewpoint can help an organisation get there quicker.


How do you help your organisation/clients listen to customers? I’d love to hear from you.  Please feel free to add a comment below.


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This post was brought to you by IBM for Midsize Business and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s Midsize Insider. Dedicated to providing businesses with expertise, solutions and tools that are specific to small and midsized companies, the Midsize Business program provides businesses with the materials and knowledge they need to become engines of a smarter planet.

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