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Have you heard of the phenomenon of "declared preference" versus "revealed preference?" If you haven't, you may be in for a scary surprise this Halloween season if you are using voice of the customer (VOC) research to drive the positioning and messaging for your product launch.

I was recently invited to help a company that had suffered the indignity of a failed product launch. The folks there gave me pages upon pages of focus group results and customer interviews to help me get up to speed on its product.

Here's what they had done. First, they had asked decision-makers to review the "elevator pitch" and marketing messaging. They also asked for input on the top features and benefits and how they should be positioned, and they had literally invited customers to tell them how the value propositions should be worded to create the most impact.

Next, these customers were polled on which features should be in the various service levels of the new program, and what price they'd be willing to pay for each of those levels. The information was then used to create all of the marketing campaigns and sales tools, including presentations, for the product launch.


That's not an acronym. It's the sound the VOC research made when I printed it out and dropped it on my desk to review—and the sound the product launch made after the research had gotten into the hands of salespeople and the story was told to customers.

How did that happen? The company had done everything by the book. It had gone to great lengths to wrap its efforts in market research and VOC data points.

Well, a crazy thing happened on the way to customers' actually putting their money where their mouth was. Those customers choked. They stuck with the status quo. They weren't willing to make the change to a new approach. None of the positioning and messaging convinced them to make a change or do anything different.

But why? They had said this was good stuff! They actually helped this company craft the messages. The presentation and promotions even addressed the pain points they'd said they have!

Declared Preference vs. Revealed Preference

Many economists and researchers have reported that people don't always do what they say in interviews or surveys they will do. Why? Because it's easy to respond certain ways when there is actually no cost involved. You can act more confidently in the hypothetical than when confronted by reality.

Many people, for example, will test as investors with a tolerance for high risk when their financial planners do an assessment, but they start panicking and pulling money from the market as soon as they lose a few points from their earnings—let alone their principal.

And you can find survey after survey of people saying they want higher gas-mileage cars and that they would even be willing to pay extra for "green" cars (and other environmentally friendly products), yet those cars sit on the lots and the green merchandise lingers on grocery shelves.

The Tricks VOC Will Play on You

VOC research tends to consist of declared (or stated) preference. And it can play a trick on you when actual behaviors are revealed after your product launch.

When you launch a new product, you're asking prospects to make a change. The first "yes" to change must take place when you ask them to do something different. Yet the "why change?" conversation is often neglected in marketing and product-launch messaging. The assumption is that if prospects or customers want to speak with you, they must want to know why they should choose your solution.

So the first "trick" that VOC research plays on you is that it makes you think that customers will react to your product positioning messaging simply because you ask them to. But it has nothing to do with whether they are ready, willing, or able to change. The content you are testing completely misses the bigger challenge in a product launch.

The second "trick" that will get you if you are not careful is that VOC responses rarely express reasons that are big enough to get a customer to change. They can tell you about some problems or pains they are dealing with, but that doesn't mean they will actually change to another solution to fix those problems. Why? Because up to now they have found a way to live with those pains, and those pains pale in comparison with a big, risky change management project—which is what you are actually offering.

You have to make the pain of staying the same greater than the pain of change. Interestingly, the problems, challenges, threats, gaps, or deficiencies that cause customers and prospects to reconsider their status quo are often unknown to them—or, at a minimum, under-valued and under-appreciated.

Why Change Messaging Transcends VOC

On average, six out of 10 qualified pipeline prospects end up in "no decision." That's the majority of your sales cycles. In the case of the failed product launch example, more than 75% of qualified sales leads said "no thanks" and stuck with their status quo.

For your product launch to be successful, you will need to deliberately create "why change?" customer and sales messaging. And I'm not talking about gratuitous references to customer pains at the beginning of your campaigns or collateral.

You need to think about the entire first half of the customer buying cycle as creating a buying vision in which the customer understands that his or her status quo is no longer safe, and so gains a sense of urgency for change.

Use the knowledge of your solution's unique and relevant strengths, along with your collective experience solving problems for customers, integrated with your efforts to peer into the future of your industry and create an early-stage, executive-level story:

  • Your messages, presentations, and conversations need to deliberately provoke and disrupt the status quo with insights that make existing or inherent problems more apparent.
  • You will need to visualize the gaps in prospects' current assumptions and show how they are putting their desired outcomes at risk; use simple pictures of the status quo, highlighting the leaks and squeaks in the floorboards of their approach.
  • Then, use third-party stats and results to show the magnitude and imminence of the potential negative impact if those leaks and squeaks are left unchecked and become an actual hole in the floor.
  • You will also need to teach your sales force the discipline and patience of working through this "why change" discussion. Give them the messages, tools, and skills to be credible.

The bottom line: if you implement the above strategies to create and deliver effective messages to your customers and prospects, you won't be tricked... and you will certainly be treated with a successful product launch.

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image of Tim Riesterer

Tim Riesterer is chief strategy and marketing officer of Corporate Visions Inc. He is the co-author of Customer Message Management and Conversations that Win The Complex Sale,

LinkedIn: Tim Riesterer