An easy way to become a market oriented executive: Spend a day in the life of your customer

Every successful business is built on superior sense – of timing, opportunity, responsibility and not infrequently humor. None however, is more critical than the ability to sense the market. A senior executive instinctive capacity to empathize with and gain insight from customers is the single most important skill he or she can use to direct technologies, product and service offerings, communications programs, indeed, all elements of a company’s strategic posture.

Paying attention to the customer is certainly not a new idea. But many top-level managers, particularly those at industrial companies, consider customer contact the bailiwick of sales and marketing staff. And even if they do believe that market focus is priority, most retain only limited contact with consumers as their organizations grow, relying instead on subordinates reports to define the sere of the market for them.

Such approaches are dangerous for several reasons:

First: Customers input and market data are useful only if they are coming from the right source. Most industrial companies define customer as the next entity in the distribution channel and stop there, routinely gathering all their marketing information accordingly. This is a serious mistake. Each link in the chain right down to the end user is as important as the next. Only market data that reflects desires and needs at every step can give senior management the kind of comprehensive picture they need to make informed, accurate decisions about new services, product positioning etc. For industrial companies, several steps removed from the end users of a finished product, such an error can result in a grossly inaccurate portrayal of the market.

Second: Another danger is that most managers do not understand the distinction between information and knowledge. Even if they include information from all points in the distribution channel, most general market data do not show a manager how each customers relates to the next level or how customers view competing products or services. Managers faced with too much general information tend to average results, blur boundaries, and miss distinct, segmented market opportunities.

Thirds: Unless senior executives make market focus a personal, strategic priority, they will not initiate organizational changes, even if all data indicate that such change is warranted. Most top-level managers should routinely spend time visiting customers. But not just the superficial visit to say hi. They should invest enough time with the customer to understand and empathize with the customer. They may have preconceived ideas about a clients situation and as a result, may not ask imaginative, probing questions or separate significant kernels of information from the overall picture.

This failure to listen carefully to all customers, to empathize with their needs and desires, results in a reduced services levels, streamlined product lines and uniform product designs. It inadvertently favors cost reduction at the expense of individuality, even when market needs point towards greater customization. Whats more, managers who are not market focused often come to the conclusion that there is really no fundamental difference between their offering and the one of their competition. Commoditization, the natural outgrowth of all competitors fighting with the same weapons, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And commoditization is why so many industrial companies that embraced time-based competition or reengeniring may have realized short term gains but have ended up destroying their industries profits margin.

Top level managers need to spend a day in the life of key customers in their distributors chains,. There is no substitute for managers instincts, imagination, and personal knowledge of the market. It should be the essence of corporate strategy. Only in that context can analytically devices like customers satisfaction indices, market share data and bench marking results become servants rather than masters. And only with market-focus leadership can companies continiously and quickly reinvent themselves to meet market needs.

Few rules to become Market focus:

1- Recognize the customer more than the next step in the distribution chain. An important corollary,: do not think of your marketplace offering as a commodity.

2- Count on your customers for information, not for insights. Customers can describe their experiences and define their immediate needs. But only you can interpret the data and help them solve their problems.

3- Dont expect brilliant insights each time you study customers. Small operational shifts made from a market focused perspective can also add up to significant improvements.

4- Involve all levels of the organization in the drive to become market focused.

By Francis J Goulliart and Frederick D. Sturdivant
Full article find it in Harvard Business Review

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