What does the future hold for Partner organizations? I have been asked this question with increasing intensity over the past couple of years. The truth is, if I really knew what it takes to be hugely successful in the next several years, I would probably do it and not just talk and write about it. For me, predicting the future comes from speculation (and hopefully some insight) from my years of observing and learning about this market and from learning from many of you, successful entrepreneurs.
But changes in market adoption, vendor programs, and the economic conditions should cause you to pause and ask, where to from here? What are the risks your organization faces in the future? What opportunities are available for growth? What should be your key priorities and strategies? As vendors change channel strategies, how will that impact your business? Do you need to change how you do business? What do you offer to customers?
Who holds the information and insight that can help answer all of these questions? You should already know them and know them well: they are your customers. They know what business needs they have today, and with some curiosity and process, you will be able to identify patterns of what they need in the future.
Why do I say curiosity? Because many organizations claim to know their customers and to really understand them – but I am not talking about what version of software they have. I am talking about what business issues they have and what will be priorities for them in the future.
How do you tap into this tremendous marketing research resource known as customers? Ask them questions.
Find the Vein of Gold
I know it sounds simple, but find those customers that are true evangelists for your company and ask them why they love you. Many people assess win/loss sales data (if you don’t, you should, so start there), but often we miss asking our greatest champions why they are believers and why they continue to invest with us. What is it that drove their decision to you? Can you find a pattern amongst your best customers? Finding and following what you do best is a good start to finding out how you can expand on that competency and grow your business with new as well as existing customers.
Face the Music
If there are customers that you have lost (or prospects that went with someone else and made you their second choice), do your best to find out why. Existing customers who have not made recent purchases are at risk; contact them and find out what is happening with their business and work at understanding their issues. This is not the time to defend or try to explain away issues; rather, it is the time to clearly understand customers’ pressing needs or unresolved problems. Maybe you have the right services and products but the wrong kind of customers for your offerings. Maybe you need to adjust how and what you deliver. Whatever the truth is, seek it and face it head on, because in today’s world, there is no place to hide. The old word-of-mouth takes on an entirely different scenario in today’s world of customer reviews on the web. Whether you are a large corporation or a small local business, unsatisfied customers will find ways to be heard. It is far better if you hear it first and find solutions quickly.
Search for New and Open Territories
If your customers have business issues that need to be addressed for their future, there certainly are others out there like them. Learn from your customers what needs they have. Don’t sell immediately – just be curious and learn. Then study the competition, assess the size and availability of the market, and strategize what you can deliver or what you need to develop to deliver. Ensure your customer service is focused on delivering to customers – not just selling what you want. Remember that timing is everything. You might have the most brilliant product and service mix, but if what you are offering is not high on the priority need list for customers, they won’t buy it.
Be realistic but open to delivering products and services that are new to your organization. Sometimes the biggest hurdle to innovation and new growth is past success. We think we have it all figured out. It worked for years – but the world continues to shift and change, and new trends continue to show themselves.
The How of the What and Why
So if by now you are convinced that customers themselves are very valuable market research resources, how do you go about getting the information needed to further develop your strategies? There is no one “right” way to gather information. The key is to gather it and then to use it as data to provide further insights.
The web is a huge and efficient way to gather input, either through surveys, online communities, webinars, or blogs. But remember: the point of this strategy is to gather information – not just push it out there. Online surveys can be brief and to the point and still provide excellent insight and feedback.
The best of social networking is still evolving, and the true return on investment (ROI) is not clear. However, if you are involved in social networking, make sure someone in your organization understands how to do it effectively. Otherwise, hire it done. Don’t make the same mistake that one of the biggest recipients of U.S. tax dollars made in saying, “We are a new car company. Go to our Web site and ask our CEO any question.” There were hundreds and hundreds of posted questions – with no answers. That was a costly error in trust.
The old-fashioned voice-to-voice connection is still a viable tool; however, it should be strategized and pre-planned. Even our best customers will be difficult to just call and “get on the line” without some understanding of what you want to discuss and why.
And for those who are most valuable and are willing to talk – face-to-face remains one of the most significant means of building relationships. When was the last time you took the leaders of your top customers to lunch and didn’t try to sell them something? That you asked and listened about what was happening in their business and what they were seeing as priorities in their strategies? Most customers are so flattered to be asked without being sold; they will respond more openly than imagined.
Putting it All Together
Whether it is the analysis of a web survey, a conversation of a project manager, a response or question on a blog, or the notes from a lunch – what makes the information useful is to gather it into a central area (either make it someone’s job or use an internal data point) and then use it to make informed decisions about opportunities, risks, and organizational strategies. Adaptation to new economies and markets is far less risky and far more opportunistic when approached with the insights and feedback from customers.