What Do Your Customers Really Value?

Aug 6, 2012

If you were to ask each member of your executive team, sales team, and rank-and-file what they think customers value most when they decide who to buy from, how much agreement do you think you would find? I can tell you with complete confidence you will find little or no agreement. Of the 150 companies my consulting firm has worked with, fewer than 10 percent had much internal agreement at all among the staff on what their customers valued most, and fewer than two percent were in alignment with what their customers told us they valued, in our double-blind research studies.

This process is really an eyebrow raiser for most companies. We must ask, if the staff is not in agreement internally about what matters to their customers, how can the marketplace know what the company is about? Is the message the company conveys to its market relevant to customers?

Frequently, the different internal opinions are a reflection of who is voting and how they see their own job. When we ask internal teams to guess what their customers value, we make note of how various staff positions vote based on their own functions. We have noticed that salespeople, for example, will say “post-sales support” or “the knowledge of sales staff” is most important. A plant manager may say that the “quality of the product” is important and a logistics manager may say “on-time delivery” provides the most customer value. The customer doesn’t always agree.

Getting everyone on the same page with the customer reaps big rewards in the form of ongoing growth and profitability. These varying perceptions among key people exist regardless of the company’s products, or services, or size. The problem occurs because companies don’t actually know what their customers’ top priorities are—so they guess. When key staff members are not on the same page, and they act according to their individual beliefs, the company’s resources can be more scattered than the contents of a teenager’s bedroom. The company’s focus can be diluted and its profits can fall short.

Another interesting test is to review the content on a company’s website and compare the messaging to that of their competition. More often than not, the website content of the competitors is eerily similar, and frequently without regard to what the customers value. A home page should answer “Why us?” with relevant responses based on what the customers value, not based on internal guesses.

Hierarchy of Customer’s Buying Criteria
What companies should do is seek the hierarchy of their customer’s buying criteria to know where internal resource allocations should be invested. When this is done and measured on a regular basis, companies will have a compelling, relevant sales message that the entire team supports.

The only valid way to establish your customers’ hierarchy of buying criteria is to ask them, but you must do so anonymously in order to eliminate the negotiating bias from their answers. The best way to do this is to hire a market research firm as a third party to conduct double-blind market research. A market research firm can say, legitimately, “Hello, my name is (name) of (company), Inc., an independent market research firm. We are conducting a confidential study of (fill in your industry), and we would like to ask you a few questions.” When you or your sales team ask your customers directly, they will tell you price. When a third party asks (and doesn’t say who’s sponsoring the research), price moves down in the hierarchy; sometimes way down. In only one of our more than 150 companies has price topped the list of most important attributes.

Suppose you learn that on-time delivery is the most important thing your customers want. Can you deliver on time if production falls behind? Can production keep up if quality control doesn’t ensure raw materials live up to your suppliers’ promises, or if maintenance doesn’t keep the production line running in top form? Can shipping get stuff out the door on time if the warehouse is a mess? Do you see the importance of everyone knowing what customers want most? The same is true for service companies. If, for example, response time is most important to your customers, does your company have benchmarks and consequences to ensure responsiveness?

Once you learn what your customers want most, let that knowledge be your GPS for internal planning and for external messaging. Getting everyone on the same page with the customer reaps big rewards in the form of ongoing growth and profitability. If on-time delivery is the most important thing to your customers and prospects, here are six steps you should take based on that knowledge:

1. Share the market research results with your entire organization.
2. Determine what metrics you already have to prove your claim of on-time delivery.
3. Learn how your on-time delivery compares to that of your competition. (Your customers will tell you.)
4. Then, and only then, craft your new external message.
5. If you don’t have the measurements you need to prove your message, determine what you would like to say in six months or a year, and start measuring.
6. If your on-time delivery is not as good as your competition, focus your organization on finding out why, and fix it. After all, it’s what your customers want most from you.

Caution: what is relevant to your customers today may not be relevant tomorrow. Keep listening and aligning accordingly. The dividends are worth it.

Jaynie L. Smith is founder and CEO of Smart Advantage, Inc., author of the best-selling business book Creating Competitive Advantage (Doubleday, 2006), and author of the newly-released Relevant Selling (Executive Suite Press, 2012). To learn more, visit Smart Advantage at www.SmartAdvantage.com.

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