Archive for March, 2010

Strategic Listening

March 25, 2010 |  by  |  Word-of-Mouth Marketing  |  No Comments

 

Listening to Customers Isn’t Enough

Note: This was written in 1990, so the remarks should be taken in the context of that year. It’s amazing how many of the predictions came true!

This article is more timely now than it was 20 years ago!

Companies are trying much harder to listen to their customers — but they’re finding that it’s not only difficult, it’s not enough. What people say has to be interpreted into what people really mean, then translated into customer-oriented marketing strategy and tactics. I call this process Strategic Listening.

Henry Ford once said, “If I’d have asked them what they wanted, whey would have said, ‘Faster Horses.'” While I find that remark amusing, he was right and he was wrong. That’s what they would have said, but I’m sure he was smart enough to have asked the “dumb” question, “What would ‘Faster Horses’ mean to you, specifically?” He would have heard things like, “more time with my family,” “more time at work,” “more sleep, and still getting to work on time,” “less maintenance” etc., and dozens of other themes.

He should have probed the “obvious’ and found out what they really wanted, instead of offering “any color, as long as it’s black,” in another quote questionably attributed to him. He sure let in a lot of competitors when he ignored the preferences and expectations of customers. 

However, meeting customer expectations is also not good enough anymore. You have to exceed expectations. It’s not enough for the customer to be satisfied — the customer has to be surprised, excited and delighted. If not, he is a sitting duck for your competitor.

Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen a parade of fabulous products and companies commit dangerous — sometimes fatal — marketing blunders, often due to a failure to have the vision to go beyond customer satisfaction..

It’s worth reviewing some of them to remind ourselves how serious a problem this really is, and how disastrous the consequences can be. Here are some quick examples and thumbnail sketches. Please excuse what David Ogilvy once called “the dogmatism of brevity.”

Gimbels

A Gimbels department store vice president told me in 1972 that he didn’t believe in marketing research because their data terminals told them exactly what was bought every day. He said, “We know exactly what people want, on a daily basis. Nothing is going to get us closer to the customer than that.” Only a few years later, venerable old Gimbels closed its doors permanently. So did Korvett’s, and Grant’s. Many others, like Sears, are turning in disappointing performances. Nordstrom, notoriously customer oriented, is aggressively expanding their markets. Moral: Listening to and measuring what is does not tell you very much about what could be.

General Motors

I once wrote to General Motors in the early 70’s, when they were totally dominating the market, and suggested a dealer telephone focus group program. They sent me a legalistic letter explaining that they get ideas from all over, and that they could not accept unsolicited “proposals” because doing so would raise questions and lawsuits about who originated the ideas. In effect, they were declaring that they were closed to new ideas “Not Invented Here.” Lee Iococca is another example. He declares that he doesn’t believe in marketing research. Neither Chrysler nor General Motors has been doing too well lately. Ford, on the other hand, is doing very well. They learned from the failure of the Edsel, and many other hard knocks, as well as the success of the Taurus. They seem to be listening to everyone. In fact, the way they built the Taurus, which is well documented in the business literature, is an extraordinary lesson in external and internal listening. Ford is becoming identified with quality (Quality is Job 1), and delivering quality. It is also winning. Bravo! Moral: If a good idea falls in the forest, make sure you are set up to hear it.

AT&T

AT&T, and the aptly named Baby Bells, conduct more focus groups and surveys than almost anyone. The extent to which businesses are gleefully finding alternatives does not say very much for AT&T’s ability to reach out and touch anyone. Their fear campaigns in particular are a disgrace. The fear of being fired is the kind of thing that some marketers pick up in focus groups and run with, without going deeper. If they did, they would find that motivation by fear almost always causes deep resentment and a subsequent backlash. Moral: The important thing is not what you hear in focus groups, but the application of what you hear to strategic thinking.

IBM

IBM, probably the greatest corporation, maybe the greatest organization of any kind, in the history of the world, has been outdone in many areas by Apple and Compaq. In 1990, [and again in 1993,] IBM announced major staff cutbacks. People are now debating whether it can even survive! Apple has also made major, and repeated, blunders. They misread the higher end of the market with the Lisa, recovered with the Mac, and now they have misread the lower end of the market by not having a competitive product. On the other hand, some of their TV commercials are the best examples of attitude shifting I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the attitudes they are shifting are about computers in general, not about their computers. I’m writing this chapter on a Compaq LTE 286-40 laptop, which I predict will be the highest selling machine in 1990 [it was]. I was happy with my Zenith Supersport 286 until Compaq came out with this machine, which is the size of a two inch thick stack of notebook paper, and weighing not much more. It’s the most customer-driven product that I can remember seeing in a long time. In another three years, they or someone else will come out with an even lighter 586 machine with a color screen . If IBM doesn’t wake up, they will still be wondering if there is a market for laptops. They’ll get the idea when they see how many of their people are traveling with Compaqs. Compaq is the most customer driven company I can name. They are so customer driven that I’ll bet they don’t think they are customer driven enough, and they shouldn’t. Moral: Success often causes hearing loss.

More Examples and Lessons

The Japanese are unseating us in almost every area where they choose to compete. A few years ago, we were saying that they will never compete with us in computers. What do you think will happen when the Japanese start selling major appliances? Do you think it will take the four months that it took to perform a minor fix on my Kitchenaid to get a Japanese dishwasher fixed? (P.S., I’m still having the problem. Seems the problem is built into the machine. It has a separate piece that detaches from the upper water outlet. A $.25 clamp would have fixed it.) They claim it’s not a design problem because no one else has complained about it on their customer service line! A couple of inquiries to dealers, however, revealed to me that it’s a well-known problem to them. Why aren’t they calling the dealers? Why isn’t Kitchenaid tracking, no, soliciting customer complaints? Moral: You have to get to the point where you want to hear what you don’t want to hear.

The pharmaceutical firms, who have probably saved more lives in the last few decades than all the physicians who ever lived, are held in contempt by those physicians and the general public. The physicians themselves, once the most respected profession, are also scorned. Suing them has become a national sport. The pharmaceutical industry is a terrible example of companies keeping their heads in the sand, just about as bad as the Detroit auto makers in the early seventies. In the next decade, there will be many $4,000-10,000 per year bio-engineered drugs, like t-PA. This industry is doing nothing to educate people about the reasons for the prices. If they keep their heads in the sand, people will scream “Rape!” even louder, and governmental controls will be slapped on. Unless the pharmaceutical firms take some stands that I can’t imagine them taking, they will be facing a “windfall profits tax,” or some other form of price controls, much like the oil industry. How many drugs do you think a government controlled and profit-capped industry will produce? Almost every aspect of pharmaceutical marketing is pitiful. Their ads are even worse than those of banks and even worse than those in the industrial trade journals. The ads could be much more interesting and informative, even within the FDA constraints that are so often used as an excuse for mediocrity. Moral: When you have your head in the sand, think about what part of you is most exposed.

Pan Am, once the largest and most profitable airline in the world, probably won’t remain independent. [Note: obviously, it didn’t] The airlines are looking more and more like the railroads every day. In fact the railroads are on their way back. It’s really hard to tell the difference. The main difference that I notice on the shorter routes is that the railroads are more comfortable and arrive sooner. Most business people will go to any lengths to not fly certain airlines. The airlines actually seem to think they are in the airline business. They are not even primarily in the people moving (transportation) business. For business people, they are in the making-meetings-happen-fast business. The airlines are about to face a worse disaster than an oil shortage. It’s called teleconferencing. Moral: Maybe it’s worth tuning into some other channels once in a while.

Federal Express, in its effort to expand worldwide, has forgotten its roots. It is not reminding people of its main reason for being: not that it will get your package there overnight, but that it will make you look like a hero, that it’s what good managers do to take care of their customers, that it’s not nice to make people wait. Their success, widely attributed to their “hub” concept, was actually due not only to the hub concept, but to three other equally important concepts that are almost always overlooked: (1) They advertised to the middle managers who could make the decision to go to overnight delivery, instead of the mailroom people that all other overnight delivery services were addressing, (2) they made you a hero for using them, (3) and most importantly, customer driven marketing and empathy which went way beyond the hub system. They did deliver on their promises to get it there positively, absolutely overnight, with a tracking and inquiry system that was (and is) dazzling. Unfortunately, just as the airlines probably missed their chance to get into teleconferencing, Federal Express has blown its chance to get into the Fax business. On the other hand, they are making a long term commitment to global delivery that is likely to be very painful in the short run, but should prove very profitable in the long run. Moral: You must not only listen for customer needs, but for timing as well.

American Express, which used to be far and away the best credit card, has been winning all sorts of awards with Annie Leibovitz’s pictures of famous people and their line “Member Since 19–.” Also, their line “Membership has its privileges” has been widely praised. They’ll get plenty of awards for the new Paul Newman commercial and the other celebrity commercials that will undoubtedly follow. American Express is spending a whole lot of money to position themselves too narrowly as the credit card for celebrities! I’ve had their card since 1969. So what? Who cares? I don’t feel like a member. Am I missing something, or is the emperor naked? What are they talking about? They haven’t given me a cogent reason to use their card in years, that hasn’t been matched or anticipated by Visa almost immediately! In fact, my nomination for the flimsiest attempt to turn a disadvantage into a benefit is this line from their application brochure: “And, because you pay your bill in full each month, you will also enjoy this distinct advantage: no outstanding balance, no automatic finance charges.” How’s that for a “distinct advantage”? If you pay your bill, your balance is zero! I stopped using their card a few months ago. No one called or wrote to find out why. At least a dozen people I know who charge more than $50,000 a year have also stopped using their AMEX card. No one has listened to them either. Tell me what I get by using the AMEX card instead of VISA. With VISA, I get airline mileage, and acceptance in many more locations. I’d say that “membership” has its pretensions.

The examples are legion: The Club Med forgets its roots and its unique selling proposition; Coca-Cola determines that New Coke is preferred by prospects but forgets to check with its present customers; Coleco first doesn’t anticipate the success of Cabbage Patch Dolls, then blows it by letting it expire like a fad, while Barbie has been doing fine for decades and has never been stronger.

The list goes on and on. When venerable products like Kodak film, Budweiser beer, Chevrolet (they’re cars, remember?) and Sears are taking their lumps, something is happening — actually not happening. Companies may be listening to their customers, but they are either not hearing or not responding appropriately.

It is astounding how out of touch even the best companies are with their customers, dealers, distributors, agents. Most of what company decision makers believe about what customers want comes from what people have told them in sales interactions, which are notoriously lacking in candor.

What’s going on? Companies conduct surveys. They conduct focus groups. Managers go around with salespeople, talk to customers, go to trade shows, even have customer and employee advisory panels. Yet you can find major marketing blunders, most traceable to listening deficiencies of one kind or another, chronicled in almost any issue of every major business publication.

The root of the problem lies in a paradox. Markets, like the people they are comprised of, are both inordinately slow to change, and yet very quick to change. On the one hand, they are cautious, slow to abandon the established way of doing things. On the other hand, many small, difficult-to-detect changes gradually build up until, BAM!, major change.

Marketers are continually assuming that markets will change rapidly, only to find them unmoved. Then, when they assume that the marketplace is stable because nothing is happening, or things are happening according to smooth and predictable curves, when they least expect it they find themselves playing in a game with a different set of rules. The forces have built up, the earthquake hits, the ground moves, and they are no longer playing on a level playing field in the same game.

So, markets change slower than most marketer’s hopes, then faster than their worst fears.

You may be doing well now, but will you have the right products, presented properly, five years from now? Companies tend to make their most damaging mistakes when they are doing well, not when they are doing badly.

Markets are a dynamic balance between constantly changing forces: major breakthroughs, minor technological changes, attitudes, beliefs, fashions, emotions, availabilities, prices, and many other forces. These forces act in several areas: technology, product, manufacturing, suppliers, internal and external customers, distribution chain. The changes take place gradually, beneath the surface, little by little. Then it takes just one person, in the right place and time, to say “The emperor’s naked,” or “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” or “What, you don’t use this product?” to cause a radical shift.

Fortunately, while marketplace shifts look rapid when they happen, unlike earthquakes their upheavals are usually predictable far in advance because you can hear the rumblings of the gradual buildup of forces. You just have to know where to listen, how to listen, have a means of listening, and know to separate the signal from the noise. How?

It’s simple. Just listen with your third ear.

Your third ear (an old psychiatric phrase) hears the hidden messages that your other ears cannot. In marketing, it hears what customers aren’t saying, but should be saying, or would be saying if your products were better. It hears what customers are saying behind your back, out of earshot. It hears their attitudes, perspectives, viewpoints that they can’t verbalize. It hears their hidden fears that they won’t verbalize. It hears their emotions: their enthusiasms, excitements, anxieties that aren’t expressed in words. It hears their hopes, aspirations, self-esteem and grandeur that they are embarrassed to talk about. It hears not just the opinions heard by the other two ears, but how these opinions have shifted over time, and why. It hears their discomforts, hidden worries, embarrassments that they try to hide from themselves. It hears what they don’t know and can’t tell you about because they don’t know it yet. Perhaps most importantly, it hears what could excite people, leading to the creation of whole new markets.

Sure, market-share tables and sales-by-region graphs and opinion surveys are interesting, but it is the above so-called “soft” issues that determine the success or failure of your products.

These are the kinds of things you usually can’t pick up in surveys. These are the kinds of things that you probably don’t give your qualitative researchers enough time and latitude to dig out in focus groups and individual interviews. When was the last time you let a moderator go into a group with only one question, to be explored in real depth?

These are also not the kinds of things that management can appreciate when transmitted in dry reports. This information has to go up many levels. It gets translated and summarized. By the time it gets anywhere that it can do any good, it has last all its juice. Freeze-dried information cannot be reconstituted.

I’ll bet you think I’m leading up to a plea that management see more customers, attend more focus groups. Yes and no. Many managers benefit from getting out into the real world and talking to customers. But there usually isn’t enough time, and when there is, many managers hear with their fourth ear, which tells them only what they want to hear.

What am I leading up to? You need an organized listening system. To navigate the marketplace, you need a compass, radar, sonar, lookouts, weather radio, loran, and anything else that can let you look out into the distance and make constant mid-course corrections, even radical shifts in direction. Some of these instruments you turn on when you need them, others you keep on all the time.

But listening — even with the third ear, is not enough. Listening must be translated into marketing strategy.

I call the process I have been describing “Strategic Listening”: Hearing the hidden motivations of customers and translating them into strategic marketing plans and tactical executions.

How to implement strategic listening

How is a strategic listening system to be implemented?

Without knowing your situation, needs and preferences I cannot recommend a comprehensive program of strategic listening that will fit exactly on your plate. So, let me instead offer up a smorgasbord of ideas. Enjoy the banquet, but partake selectively.

You need an outside, professional listener who is an expert in the psychology of marketing. Someone who keeps abreast of your marketing objectives, strategies and tactics, who sets up and manages a listening program among your management, customers, distributors, salespeople and other employees. Someone who is abreast of wider business and consumer trends. Someone who is an expert in psychology, marketing, social trends, and persuasion.

This person must, first and foremost, set up a customer listening program (here “customer” means all customers, internal and external). Here’s what one looks like.

Set up a customer satisfaction index, based on periodic surveys that are based not upon questionnaires returned, but upon people called. People returning a questionnaire often tend to be either very dissatisfied, or very happy. Call them, don’t wait for them to call or write you. Pay to have high level people do the calling, and ask respondents their permission to refer their problem to the right person. Have several measures, such as sales, service, delivery, quality, etc. Ask for ideas, for what would excite them. Also ask them to rate where they think your company will be one and five years from now. Of course, ask about the competition. The absolute numbers are not as important as the changes over time, so do it regularly.

Conduct focus groups on a continuing, recurrent basis to find out what’s behind the numbers, why the numbers are changing, and how you can change the numbers. In other words, get them to help you design what will make them more satisfied, even excited. Take them seriously, even if the form in which they express ideas is not feasible. For instance, if they say, “Give away the product,” that’s obviously not feasible, but it may mask many possible desires. Find out.

Do the same kind of monitoring with your employees at different levels (particularly salespeople), distributors, agencies, suppliers, etc. Make sure that you concentrate on the “front lines.” As you go higher in the organization, you get more of what one of my clients calls the “filtering effect” as information is selectively sent up the line. It is very easy to conduct these sessions among people in the field, with telephone focus groups. They provide anonymity, convenience, people who are not all from the same geographical territory, and, since they are done in the early morning or evening, no time lost from work. (See my articles “The Shocking Truth About Telephone Focus Groups” and “How To Conduct Salesperson Focus Groups.”

Do these sessions on a regular, scheduled and budgeted basis. These are the kinds of sessions that typically no one gets around to, because they are researching specific problems and “don’t have the time.” But unless you have an organized monitoring program, you won’t know how to interpret your other marketing intelligence and research. You will not discover the hidden issues until you have a serious problem. I have a lot of clients who were once marketing research analysts and are now presidents, general managers or executive vice-presidents of their companies. I have asked them how they got where they are. They are unanimous in saying that they took a proactive attitude, and made sure that they were tracking people, not numbers. What I am trying to say, in as many motivating ways as I can think of, is that ongoing customer, employee and distribution chain monitoring comes first in importance, not as something you might get to if you have the time and budget.

Get top management to hear the sessions. How? Obviously, they usually cannot travel to distant cities to hear groups. There are several ways. Find out how different top managers like to get their information. Give those that like them cassettes. Have transcripts made for others. I have been setting up transcripts newspaper style, in columns, with easily-read, proportionally spaced type. Instead of giving someone 60 pages of typewritten type, which is hard to read and looks too formidable, I can give them 9 pages (both sides) which are as easy to read as their daily newspaper, but much more informative. To my delight, they are read. You can even set up a newsletter of transcripts sent out on a regular basis to top management. Important comments can be highlighted, and interpretations and cautions inserted. The beauty is that it requires almost no time on the part of the marketing research people in your company because it is a self-running program. But it sure is visible, and valuable. The widely-accepted idea that top management can’t or won’t listen to focus groups is nonsense. You just have to deliver the information in a simple, accessible, portable, markable, easily read format. It’s just a marketing problem. You have to market your marketing intelligence.

Incidentally, the participants are informed that the transcripts have no names or other identifying information in them, so that employees, suppliers, distributors and customers can speak freely without fear of retribution.

Another idea: I sometimes conduct telephone groups from clients’ offices, with the top executives in the same room. They can write notes to me, or make brief private comments to me during the session. I can switch off my microphone and ask them if a particular idea is new. If it is, I can probe it in depth and develop it. If it is old hat, I can move on quickly. It’s like conducting a face-to-face focus group from behind the one way mirror, in the viewing room! Of course, with this method anonymity is lost, since the participants cannot be promised that their identities will be secret.

Another way to listen is to talk with people as they are using your product, or just after they have used it. Talk to them in stores, coming out of your facility, arrange to talk with them after they have first tried the product. Go and live among the natives. Take, for example Norman Brinker, the chairman of Chili’s restaurant chain, described in the Wall Street Journal (1/29/90) as “one of the country’s most respected restaurant gurus.” and “the Ray Kroc of full-service chains.” He is the founder of Steak & Ale and Bennigans. His disciples have “also gone on to turn around such successful chains as Chi-Chi’s and TGI Friday’s.” The WSJ goes on to say, “Mr. Brinker has demonstrated a second sense for trends. After his 1983 acquisition of Chili’s, then a gourmet-hamburger chain, he recognized that consumers were growing health-conscious and quickly added salads, along with fajitas and grilled sandwiches, to broaden his menu. Friends say Mr. Brinker’s prescience comes from diligent — and somewhat sneaky — research. For example, he likes to pose as a confused tourist outside his own restaurants and asks departing patrons if they’d recommend it. He also visits competitors’ restaurants, walking around like a manager, stopping at tables to inquire about the food and service. ‘You have to listen to customers,’ he says.”

When I was a kid, my father owned several drug stores. He used a “shopping service” to send people into his stores and write detailed reports on how the store looked, the stocking levels and selection, and how customers were treated by the employees, including their physical appearance, knowledge and friendliness. No one was spared, not the managers, his partners, himself or his son. He also had the competitors shopped, and sometimes I got to do the shopping. Every few years this sort of research is rediscovered and renamed. Its current name is observational research. Do it, have your friends or family do it, and have professionals do it. Have market researchers go through the entire purchase process. Use your products, have people who will be brutally frank use them. Do all of this not to catch “wrongdoers,” but to see where people need support, or where systems can be improved. I think that one of the major reasons for the decline of US auto manufacturers was their practice of giving all executives a brand new car every three months. I’ll bet the cars were specially marked, so that they were inspected carefully and didn’t exhibit the usual initial problems that new US cars are notorious for. More importantly, they did not have them long enough to have the problems that develop after three months, much less after several years. What do you think happens to executives who have cars no older than three months? They get no feeling for quality. Every car is experienced as perfect. I have had a string of Olds 98’s. In all if them, the automatic antenna failed after about a year, despite carefully following their instructions. This usually resulted in the electric motor running continuously until the battery ran down, usually at the most inconvenient possible time. The same was true of the cruise control. Each time, I was informed that they would cost $200-300 each to fix. The dealer even wanted more than $100 to disconnect the wire to stop the antenna motor from running continuously (an obvious design flaw: motors like this should turn off after a preset number of seconds). I always had a kid in the local gas station do it for $10. Many other Oldsmobile owners reported this. The dealers say these things happen all the time. But they rarely happened to a GM executive. I think that all auto executives should alternate between brand-new randomly selected cars which they keep for a month, and cars at least two years old. If they got stuck on a cold street because a little thing like their antenna motor ran down their battery, they would probably be in a mood to have the thing redesigned the next morning. [I’m sure you have your own personal stories, too. Send them in to me, or call me, so that I can include them in future editions. I’m particularly interested in success stories.]

Conduct groups of your beta testers, clinical investigators, other pre-launch users. I once conducted groups of clinical investigators and pre-launch users of an eye surgery product. We conducted groups prior to their getting the product, to assess their expectations. We then conducted groups a few hours after half of them used it for the first time in surgery. The ones who hadn’t used it quizzed the ones who had, clarifying several confusions that could be avoided by modifications in the directions. We tracked their use for several weeks, when some of them discovered a mysterious redness in the eye after surgery. They hotly debated whether it was the product or operative technique, while the company was sure it was the latter. The clinical investigators flew around the country observing each other’s techniques and insisted it was the product. The problem was ultimately traced to an impurity. The company delayed introduction, fixed the problem, and credited the pre-launch groups with saving the product. It is now a highly successful product. Not every pre-launch situation is as dramatic, but I have never seen one where there were not major blunders averted, or major opportunities identified.

In another example, I was asked to investigate what the client thought was a minor problem with a part on a machine. They weren’t sure if it was the part itself, the training of the service people, or the general inability of the service people to troubleshoot. In talking with sales and service people, it quickly became apparent that the “problem” was just a symptom of many problems in manufacture, training, communication, corporate organization, incentives, and so on. In the meantime, the breakdown of the part was so serious that the client recalled the product the morning after the groups. It was clear to all concerned that the situation would not have reached major proportions if a strategic listening program had been in place. It was not that the problems had not been detected. Their significance was not appreciated until seen from several perspectives at the same time, and until people opened up in a focus group setting where I, as an outsider, was allowed to probe beyond the superficial, “nicey-nice” baloney that they had been feeding to their bosses. The amazing thing is that the company itself is extraordinarily customer-driven. They just made the mistake of not doing the sessions from the pre-launch period, through the first few weeks or months of the launch.

How to launch a product

Track new products not only quantitatively, but qualitatively: interpretively, motivationally, deeply. I believe that this is among the most glaringly neglected MUSTS in marketing. When you are introducing a new product, or your competitor has introduced a major new product, conduct focus groups and individual depth interviews among customers who have just bought, who have not yet bought, who have rejected the product and who have bought an alternative product instead. Mix people who have bought with people who are still deciding, to research the word of mouth. Talk in focus groups with your salespeople as the product rolls out. You don’t want all of your information through the formal sales channels. I have seen disaster after disaster averted, and clients discover ways to make the marketing more powerful. I have seen new hot buttons discovered, whole new markets uncovered. Several of my clients have had us conduct focus groups on aweekly basis during the first few months of launch. Overkill? They don’t think so. They could have canceled with two weeks’ notice, but didn’t. Here are some of the things they were able to track:

Why people bought.

What the principle objections were and what overcame them. Why people almost didn’t buy, and what got them over their reluctance.

What the company and its competition was saying that was turning people off. The things that people were buying despite, not because of.

What the competitors were saying to counteract the product, and how to not only counteract them, but make the competitors lose credibility in the process.

Which competitors were most vulnerable, why they were vulnerable and how to make the most of their vulnerability.

How satisfied they are. What expectations were met, exceeded, or not met.

What they are saying to other people. How word of mouth could be encouraged to unleash the most powerful selling force, the word of peers.

What is working, and not working, for all the promotional materials, such as ads, sales aids, etc.

What sales, persuasion and promotion approaches are actually working. How has the sales force modified existing materials to make them better?

What materials need to be developed for the next sales cycles.

Also, conduct regularly scheduled groups of users of competitors’ products. This is rarely done, because it is so painful. What you hear will be very disturbing, but will probably galvanize everyone into productive action.

I have heard the executives of several companies at industry meetings talk openly about the unusual responsiveness of their competitors. I even heard one top manager joke (more than half seriously, though) that he thought there might be a spy in their organization. In each of these cases, I knew that the responsiveness, both to the customer and to competitive moves, was due to a strategic listening program among sales reps, customers, competitors’ customers, industry experts, and other kinds of people who should be monitored in depth. It’s truly this company’s secret weapon. Someday I’ll be allowed to tell the story, but I can’t even mention the industry at this point.

More tips on implementing a strategic listening system

Integrate all of the above, plus other methods you discover along the way, into a company-wide crusade. Announce your listening system to everyone: customers, prospects, managers, workers, salespeople, reps, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, and any other “customers” you have to satisfy. Make the program concrete: Hot-lines, focus groups, newsletters (that really have news, not the usual company pep talks and hype). Include in your listening system: Communication of problems instead of just solutions, rewards for suggestions, stories of how listening made someone a hero, sharing of focus group transcripts, voice mailboxes for specific actions, guidelines about when to get back to people, task forces, nationwide conference calls among the field, retreats for middle and lower level people to solve problems, etc.

In future chapter updates, I will give you even more specific examples of what to do. [Please send me your additions and success stories. Also send your requests for what you want to hear more about. Do you want to hear about how to set up hot lines, voice mail, telephone focus groups, distributor advisory groups, other elements of a strategic listening system?]

Also, in future chapter updates I will be listing the most and least customer oriented companies and products. Send me your nominations, and the reasons.