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We’ll come to you.

Last week, this blog focused on the virtues of face-to-face customer interviews… particularly when that customer is a business (not an end-consumer), and the subject is "we’d like to know more about your needs so we can design a better product for you."

I was giving a presentation to a large industrial supplier a few months ago, and someone raised their hand to say, "But our sales people are already talking with our customers today about their product needs. What’s different about what you are proposing?" In fact, the difference is often that of night and day.

Many sales calls are customer-reactive meetings, in which the customer states their need and the supplier records the information. The sales rep returns to the mother ship and then attempts to have a new product developed, often in a "one-off" fashion, i.e. just for this customer. Seldom does the supplier move down the value chain, trying to understand the needs of the customers’ customers. And too often, other customers in the same market segment are not adequately interviewed for their needs.

Compare that to a market-proactive interview program. First the supplier identifies an attractive market segment. (My definition of market segment is "cluster of customers with similar needs.) Then the supplier identifies the key customers in this segment and their downstream customers’ customers. A highly skilled 2-3 person interview team (which may include a sales rep) then interviews these businesses. If the team is really on the ball, they do a round of qualitative interviews, followed by a round of quantitative interviews. (More on that in later blogs.)

The quality of information gathered in these market-proactive interviews is altogether different that that culled from a sales call report. Needs are probed deeply to understand root issues. Not only are spoken needs identified, but unspoken—and even unimagined needs—are also uncovered. While the sales call tends to focus on today’s problems, the market-proactive also searches for future opportunities. ("Skate to where the puck will be," as Wayne Gretsky once said.)

Perhaps the biggest problem with the sales-call-induced new-product project is that it puts you in direct competition with others. That friendly chap that told your sales rep his needs had the same conversation with most of your competitors. So now you’re in a foot-race with them. Far better to indentify an attractive market, go far deeper than your competitors in understanding its needs, and then launch a major next-generation or breakthrough product.