You’re doing the right things. You’ve chosen your target customers wisely and found a set of needs you can solve for them better than anyone else can. People and teams across your organization are doing their best to make daily decisions that meet or exceed the requirements your customers value most. And you’re constantly re-evaluating and stopping processes that aren’t matching your target experience.
This time of year especially, the answer I hear often is “no.”
Why? Because many leaders are, despite the best of intentions, usually so busy working on the existing problem they’re solving for customers (good) that they have little time left to look at what’s next (not so good).
Looking at what’s next is key. Meeting the next, or evolving needs of your customers can be the difference between a company that stagnates and one that flourishes with profit over the years. So how do you stay one step ahead of your customers? Here are five ways to consider:
1. Set up or tune up effective feedback mechanisms
Do you have effective channels in place for your customers to provide real-time feedback on your products and services and their experience? I know it’s basic, but do you have an email address at the bottom of your e-newsletters where customers can send you feedback? Are you listening where your customers vent their frustrations or share joys?
Sometimes this valuable customer point-of-view gets “stuck” in marketing and never makes its way back to the people on the operations side who could really use it. Your voice of the customer (VOC) or other feedback mechanisms are only effective if you leverage them.
2. Identify customers’ next problems, needs or desires—not products or services
Today and tomorrow, what you solve is more important than what you sell. When leaders take a breath and think about the big, long picture, they often agree on this point. Yet too often leaders listen or look for the next product or service a customer mentions, or lean too hard on “customers who buy X will buy Y next” analytics.
To stay a step ahead of your customers, observe or listen for the unmet needs, unsolved problems or unquenched desires of your existing and target customers. This is a headwater of untapped demand for you. Customers may buy if you push the next logical product, but they will be more loyal (and likely more profitable) if you solve the next problem.
BONUS: in your customer surveys or other follow-up interactions with customers, do you ask “Did we solve the need that triggered your journey to us?” My words are likely not your words, but my tip here is to remember to ask this basic question.
3. Find the alternative to you
Think about all the products and services a customer could reach for instead of yours. Let’s imagine I woke up with a stiff neck today. I could reach for 2 ibuprofen pills, declare my too-soft pillow has got to go, make an appointment for a massage, or admonish myself for missing my workout for the last several days. That’s four very different alternatives to solve my problem – and we haven’t even started thinking about the competition among drug companies or pillow manufacturers. In a similar way, your customers are contemplating their own set of options.
Tip 3 is to push yourself to think of all the alternatives to you that your customers would reach for if they could. Some exist – some don’t…yet. Imagine all the alternatives to Instagram that found new customer support in the last few weeks. Don’t wait for a problem to open your eyes to alternatives. Be the instigator and find them, or create them yourself.
4. Pay attention to existing customers
Many organizations get so caught up with the new customer that they fail to pay attention to their biggest advocates: their current customers. The shiny, new customer is compelling – they’re full of new opportunity. But existing customers have demonstrated a belief in your business. They are most likely to give you real feedback on what’s working, what’s not, and what’s next. Getting that information from new customers isn’t quite as easy. Take advantage of your existing relationships before you start trying to mine new ones.
When I speak, one of my favorite questions to ask marketing leaders is what portion of the previous day they focused on new versus existing customers. When they say most of their time is spent on new prospects, they look at their feet. They know this truth: the most underleveraged asset in most businesses is the customer.
5. Find out who your detractors are—and what they’re saying about you
Look back to #2 above. That listening exercise will help you identify your biggest fans—and your most strident detractors. Detractors might be bloggers. They might be industry influencers on Twitter or Forbes. Some are existing customers. Your job is to translate what’s being said into actionable lessons about what’s next. A favorite tactic is to create a word cloud of all the detractor statements or conversations about your brand, company, product or service. That will stimulate a conversation!
Bill Gates said “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”
How have these ideas worked for you? Do you have other ways to stay one step ahead of your customers?