Don’t waste your customer’s time on pointless research

I’m a huge believer in polling your customers to uncover key insights into how they buy, what they think of my clients, how they evaluate similar suppliers, etc. In fact, most of my assignments start with customer phone interviews because the information uncovered during these conversations is priceless when it comes to developing a strategy that is truly relevant to the people who actually buy your products or services. Fundamental marketing.

So why did I recently refuse a client’s request to make these critical calls? Have I decided to cut the customer out of the marketing process and simply guess at what they need? If you believe that, I have some nice Florida swampland to sell you.

Here’s the scenario. I had worked with this client’s sales team for several months with good results. However, I was also tasked with working with the marketing director. He had very different ideas when it came to “marketing”. After giving my recommendations as to the direction of the customer survey, I received a short list of questions he wanted to ask his company’s clients. Everything seemed fine until I saw the questions.

This smart, capable marketing director wanted to ask an audience of high level, technology buyers questions including:

“If you were to buy us a drink, what kind of drink would it be?”
“If we were a car, what kind of car would we be?”
“If we were an airline, which airline would we be?”

What would you think if some marketing guy called you up and asked you these questions? He had done this type of survey before and was dead set on repeating this folly. In my experience with this person, I knew that there was no chance of changing the direction of the survey. Not only would I not embarrass myself or my client asking such superficial, pointless questions, I could not see how this line of questioning would provide us with useful information that would help fulfill the CEO’s dictum – to increase sales, revenue and profit.

I know that a lot of marketing people ask these types of questions and think they are uncovering useful information. My problem with this approach is that it is far too subjective and open to interpretation. For example, if a customer says you are a Jaguar, you might think, “We are high end, performance oriented, expensive and desirable.” However, the client might have a very different view of Jaguar and might have meant “Overpriced, conspicuous, prone to breakdowns and impractical.”

If the client wanted to buy us a “White Russian” how could I possibly distill anything from such an answer that would specifically help the company sell more products or enhance their value? At least I would know how the client prefers to pick up girls at the bar.

My questions would have been much different. They might include:

“What is your buying criteria and how is it ranked?”
“If we stopped doing business, who would you buy from and why?”
“How do we compare to the competition based on your buying criteria?”
“What is your buying/selection process?”
“In what areas do we need to improve?”
“Why do you continue to buy from us?”
“What other needs might you have that we could fulfill?”

But what do I know. If I were a car, I’d be a 1965 Corvette.

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