By Brian Babcock
First published in the Globe and Mail, Jan. 10, 2003
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Focus on what
your clients really need - not what you want to sell them
is king." How often has this mantra resonated in the minds of executives
and small-business owners? Cruising under the banner of serving our
market, we work overtime to please our loyal customers, and we launch
sales campaigns to find new ones. But do we recognize who our customers
really are and what they need? Or do we define our customers by our
As president of
a school bus company, I had to please the local school districts - our
paying customers. But I also had "silent" customers: the parents
whose children used the service.
districts responded to sales calls with disenchantment. They seemed
to think of private contractors as nuisances unless their prices were
bargin-basement. But our silent customers, the parents, had different
priorities. Because the majority of them worked outside the home, they
needed dependable pickup and drop-off times that would allow them to
go to work free of stress and to organize after-school child care. Parents
were also concerned about child molestation and bullies. This meant
that drivers had to be extremely dependable and capable of providing
a secure environment. Parents also wanted to pay lower taxes - but they
saw this as being less important than their need for safe, secure, on-time
delivery of their children. Once we spelled out the requirements of
these "silent customers," the school authorities' focus on
price became malleable. Then, because we had looked to our silent customers'
needs, sales turned to marketing with unbelievable ease.
The point was this:
By seeing our silent customers' issues and focusing on their lifestyle
requirements, rather than on products or services, we gave the needs
of our paying customers meaning within the company. In doing that, we
convinced the school districts that their priorities were more complex
than they thought. In the beginning, they expected rock-bottom prices.
But once we demonstrated that top-quality service ensured the safety
of their voters' children, they understood that a somewhat higher price
tag was worth it.
try to convince customers to want what they have. Any company that looks
to the broadest needs of all its customers - both paying and silent,
visible and invisible - will leave the treadmill of forcing sales. This
creates the opportunity to enter the domain of marketing, where managers
develop a comprehensive vision that brings the consumer's needs inside
Of course, good
marketing alone doesn't bring success. Executives have to deliver substantial
value - that place where price and service intersect. In the school
bus case, risk management was supremely important and we had to focus
with extreme care on every detail of our operations. If we had failed
to do so, we would have betrayed the goal of our more complex needs-oriented
approach. I was reminded of of Oscar Wilde's remark about people who
know "the price of everything and the value of nothing." We
choose, in this case, to create an understanding of value.
As executives, we
cannot create win-win situations if we're out of touch with our customers'
needs. It's vital to identify a problem that is central to our typical
customer and set about to solve it. We may have to follow the example
of Steve Jobs, who learned that it's with "hands-on" contact
and real listening that a true understanding of the customer's problems
can be translated into a product that provides a solution and creates
value. The result? In his case, the Apple computer, which was a stunning
is bottled water. The sale of safe, clean water appears to be tremendously
successful as an alternative to much less expensive tap water. Perhaps
this is because bottled water has become fashionable. More probably
it's because consumers fear health risks associated with everyday drinking
water. This need was clearly less prevalent in the 1950's, when tap
water was thought to be safe. But today, the perceived risks related
to consuming household water have served to create a strong market for
Have water bottlers
been smart with creative promotion, market segmentation, mix concepts
and market environmental analysis? Of course they have. But it's only
in recent years that it's been worthwhile to invest in developing and
executing marketing concepts based on the perceived health risks relating
to the consumption of household water.
The lesson: Consumers'
needs create markets and markets give life to businesses. But how do
you implement that? As U.S. author, humorist and actor James Thurber
wrote: "It's better to ask some of the questions than to know all
of the answers."
Here are some questions
to ask yourself:
- Do you take the
time to distinguish and define different kinds of customers and learn
about their central problems as life issues?
- Do you know the
impact these problems have on your market?
- Do you know the
impact a changing market has on your business?
- Do you know if
you'll survive the changes or thrive in the changes once you know
the answers to these questions? Should you expand, retain the status
quo, or "close down" your operation to preserve assets?
- Do you create
value or are you becoming price-focused and commoditized before your
product life cycle compels you to do so?
- Can you define
your business in simple terms? For example, do water bottlers sell
water or perceptions of better health?
- Does your business
definition compel you to design new and better-integrated products?
Consider your answers
in building the foundation of your market strategy.
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