The central character in a G.K. Chesterton novel finds it so important to maintain a solid and vibrant relationship with his wife that he continuously re-enacts their courtship.
Do your customers look at your products with the same eager anticipation as they once did? Have your customers stayed "married" to you? Would you consider them still in love—or waiting it out until someone better comes along?
If you're like most of the tech professionals we know, you can answer those questions, but only vaguely and sporadically. And if that's true, what's the likelihood that your customers absolutely, passionately want to continue with you as a vendor? Our experience with firms (including Symantec, Adobe, Logitech, and others) suggests that only when you know customer desires intimately can you fulfill them.
Market Research That's Not Enough
Gleaning information from occasional market research, fire drills on hot issues, anecdotes from the sales force, and complaints to the support line is all good. But it's the same as eating a diet of restaurant food nightly: probably not the best form of intake, because the spotty forms of customer input I've described give you only snippets and not a comprehensive view. It's like knowing how many people you've irritated. And while that's valuable, it is not the same as knowing how many people you've delighted. Doing market research once in a while doesn't give you the consistent flow of information on what is needed. What you need to lead a business is the critical view of what your customers want and desire.
Without customer insights, businesses squander vast amounts of time and money chasing after new ideas only to find that they've pursued the wrong idea, missed an important opportunity, or ignored a problem until it became too large to fight. Having seen some of our current clients find us after wasting years and millions of dollars, I would recommend you build a plan for knowing your customer and what makes them (or would make them) crazy in love with you. It's the cheapest thing to do, really. And time won't make it better.
Most companies settle for incomplete market information because, until recently, market research was too difficult and too expensive to conduct more than occasionally. But that's no longer true. Developments in online research technology have made it simple for every size company—from startups to global brands—to know exactly what their customers are thinking, in exquisite detail, updated as often as needed.
Insights acted on and engineered-in help create customer communities with boundless enthusiasm for your company and products. Ever try to take away someone's iPod? How about substituting an off-brand for your son's favorite Nikes? Is there a substitute for Nathan's Famous? Not on your life! And why is that? Love, baby.
Nilofer Merchant is the CEO of Rubicon Consulting (www.rubiconconsulting.com), a strategy and marketing consultancy based in Silicon Valley that solves complex business challenges for high-tech companies.