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Learning What Your Real Customers Really Want

“Learning What Your Real Customers Really Want”

You’ll be more successful by getting in touch with end users — the people who really use your product.

Do you know why your customers choose your product over that of your competitors? You might have a good idea based on experience, intuition or even market research, but it’s critical to get in touch with the people who actually use your product or service:

  • Only four in 10 consumers show genuine loyalty toward brands or companies, according to a 2000 study by Carlson Marketing Group. In 2001 that number dropped to three in 10.
  • Only 9% of consumers said they would consider using just one brand.

Consumers may be fickle, but you can tip the scales of product loyalty in your favor by tapping the insights of your true customer, the end user. Bypassing distributors or retailers can be difficult, but input from your ultimate consumers not only helps shape your product — it can change your business.

When intuition needs a check. Does your own taste or intuition govern what you produce? Christine Dimmick’s does. Founder of New York’s The Good Home Co., a manufacturer of personal-care and home products, Dimmick considers herself a member of Good Home’s target market. She justifies control over product development this way — and it’s working: Good Home’s revenues have risen to nearly $5 million in seven years.

Nonetheless, Good Home has needed customer input. "My instincts have been proven wrong," Dimmick concedes.

Example: Good Home produces a bed-linen spray with a lavender scent, a natural sleep enhancer. Customers began clamoring for other floral fragrances, but Good Home didn’t immediately react. It doubted that consumers would want the sheet spray unless the particular scent aided sleep, as lavender does. That belief soon changed. Retailers’ requests for additional offerings continued to pour in until Dimmick could no longer ignore them. Now Good Home offers the spray in seven additional scents, and they’re among its best sellers.

Relying on end users and distributors

Sometimes it’s impossible to get meaningful input from each client, so Geneva, N.Y.-based BioWorks Inc., a producer of fungicide, has struck a happy medium. The $5 million company directly contacts key customers and relies on distributors to fill in the gaps.

At one time, BioWorks depended solely on distributors to sell its products. "Distributors will say, ‘Hey, have you heard about a new product called Root Shield? Would you like to try some?’ If [the potential customer] says yes, they’ll give him some; if not, they’ve got 499 other products to offer," says William Foster, CEO of BioWorks.

Most distributors are order takers, and though some distributors do become genuinely enthused about a product and make a concerted effort to sell it, BioWorks doesn’t leave it to chance.

To ensure its customer base grows strategically, BioWorks conducts research to find key customers. In fact, BioWorks devotes 80% of its time to end users, who are typically cutting-edge consumers eager to try new products. End users comprise 10%-20% of BioWorks’ customer base, and though they aren’t among the biggest accounts, these innovative customers become familiar with BioWorks’ lines and usually buy multiple products.

Let your fingers do the walking. Rob Forbes, CEO of Westport Corp., a gauge manufacturer in West Islip, N.Y., rattles the industry’s complacency by using an unconventional method to reach end users: telemarketing. His telemarketing strategy not only provides 95% of new business, but also informs customers about product offerings and how Westport operates.

Be sure to reach your intended target for the greatest impact, Forbes says. Purchasing agents or department heads may work for your client, but they aren’t necessarily your end users. Westport’s end users are quality-control managers — engineers who know how gauges fit into the overall operation and are familiar with the company’s future needs.

"They’ll say, ‘Can you get this or that?’ We get a lot of orders, and we don’t even advertise these products," Forbes says.

Observe customers in their natural habitat. Jon Christensen, president and CEO of Elytics Inc., a $3 million company in Somerville, Mass., has a dual perspective on customers. Besides concentrating on its own customers, Elytics helps clients focus on theirs: The company provides analytical software that tracks and interprets online behavior.

Christensen believes that a customer is a process, a lifecycle. "If you look at customers just when they’re purchasing, it can be very myopic and misleading," he says, noting that focus groups and surveys don’t cut the mustard. "Marketing people are grown on surveys, but if you want to find out about the bears, you don’t go to the zoo. You go to the wild." E-commerce enables businesses to examine consumers "in the wild" by tracing their steps and making conclusions about their logic.

Customers have two faces. There’s a difference between what customers say they want and what they buy. That’s because consumers often don’t know what’s available to them — or even what they really need. Other times, they simply don’t want to reveal their true intentions. For instance, people may say what the interviewer wants to hear, or they may not want to admit that they’re cheap and plan to buy a low-end product, observes Beth Kurcina, director of research for market-research firm General Management Technologies (GMT), Pittsburgh.

GMT tracks behavior in the aisle, identifying inconsistencies between people’s statements and their behavior. GMT videotapes consumers as they pick up an item, read the label, put it back on the shelf or speak with a clerk. The surveillance is followed by an off-camera interview, where shoppers are asked about their behavior and final choices. The interview responses are compared to the videotape. That information is then compared with results from market surveys of the customer base.

Keep consumer gaps in mind when soliciting information. Not only could you be getting responses that are a few degrees from reality, you may also be asking the wrong questions.

"Make sure you’re not asking the customer for a solution. Instead, ask them what their pain or problem is," Christensen adds. Caution: Don’t ask the customer what they want. The customer will never come up with what they want. That’s your job.

Tip: Interpret customer comments with perspective. Sending out 100 questionnaires, getting answers and then averaging the responses will not give you the answer.

In addition, don’t just ask end users about their use of your product; inquire whether they use competitors’ products and why. Ask how they use your product, how they use others’ products. Discern what their goals are so you can make products more amenable.

Tip: Think of your product not just as a cog in the customer’s machine, but as part of a whole that encompasses an end product, an end user and a process.

When relying on a middle man works

Dimmick relies on national retailers for information about the end user. Yet Restoration Hardware, one of the national retailers selling her products, usurps Good Home’s identity by referring to Good Home’s products as their own in catalogs and point-of-purchase displays. This makes it more difficult for end users to seek out Good Home directly.

Although Good Home’s name gets less play, Restoration Hardware’s target market of upscale homeowners closely overlaps with Good Home’s target — upscale women in their late 20s through 40s.

As a result, Dimmick is willing to sacrifice direct contact with Good Home’s end users. The company aspires to sell directly to the consumer at some point, but until then, retailers’ marketing will help Good Home reach its target audience.

Training is key. This reliance requires faith in the knowledge and enthusiasm of retail clerks and managers, which is sustained by unsolicited training. Training isn’t part of Good Home’s contract with retailers, but retailers welcome it. Good Home calls the stores ahead of time to identify clerks who have a particular interest in learning more about its products.

Each training session lasts about 45 minutes, during which Dimmick or one of her employees — not an outside sales rep — explains the products’ ingredients, benefits and proper use. Trainers discuss what makes Good Home’s products unique, and they address common questions such as, "At what point during the wash cycle do you add the laundry rinse?"

"These sessions are important because we have such enthusiasm for our products, and we get that through. Your goal is to have someone at that store who can take some of that enthusiasm from an animated, face-to-face meeting," Dimmick stresses. The trainer then leaves a prepared binder of instructions and marketing materials for future reference.

Develop relationships. Dimmick knows the managers of the three national retailers that carry Good Home’s products; she relies on them for numbers. Sales reports have shown that the lavender bed-linen spray sells twice as well as any other, and production rates have been adjusted accordingly.

BioWorks courts a key segment of its customer base by doing work for them. A BioWorks employee contacts these firms directly and conducts a trial run of a product. This includes helping a farmer, for instance, prepare a new fungicide and distribute it in a separate part of a field. The growth and quality of the yield is then measured over time against the rest of the crop, which was treated with a competitor’s product. The trial run takes time, patience and planning.

"If we just sent them the stuff, it would probably still be on their shelf right now," Foster says. Instead, a target market is courted, and BioWorks gains valuable information for product development.

Writer: Rosemarie Buchanan.