By George F. Brown, Jr.
(the book) CoDestiny, we argue that the most successful business
strategies are ones that build upon shared successes. If your
strategy creates value for your customers, it opens the potential
for your own firm to capture some of that value for its own
shareholders. Unlike strategies that focus on winning a zero-sum
game with your business partners, CoDestiny strategies have the
potential for sustained contributions. But while the logic of such
win-win strategies is compelling, identifying their elements and
implementing them successfully is a challenge.
of the tools that is critical to successful CoDestiny strategies is
developing an effective and continuing flow of messages from the
market, gaining insights from participants at every stage of the
customer chain about their issues, challenges, priorities, and
perspectives. While not the only element needed for successful
strategy development, such customer-based insights are on the short
list of critical ingredients.
Today, most businesses have implemented some formal programs through
which they can listen to their customers, many going by names such
as Voice of the Customer Program and others involving variants on
the theme of customer satisfaction. Such programs can make a
significant contribution to strategy development. In the paragraphs
that follow, some insights that have emerged on this topic are
provided as guidance for firms looking to either develop such
programs or take existing ones to higher levels.
Research and experience suggest that there are three primary goals
that can be achieved through a Voice of the Customer initiative.
Clarity as to the goals of the program and about the ways in which
it can connect to strategy development and implementation, provides
focus to its design and execution.
first of the three goals is the most critical in terms of its value
and the most challenging in terms of its degree of difficulty. The
goal is simple: gain customer inputs into your own strategy
development process by learning of their perspectives on the future
business environment and on their most pressing needs. This goal
connects to many of the elements of any company�s strategic plan �
gaining insights related to product innovation, identifying new
services critical to customers, learning about trends at each and
every stage of the customer chain, identifying new applications that
customers are targeting, etc.
Success in gaining customer insights about the future business
environment and new needs can enable a supplier to get ahead of
opportunities and strengthen its value proposition in areas of vital
importance to its customers. The key here is ensuring that Voice of
the Customer interactions are forward looking. (And most approaches
fail miserably in that regard, focusing on past performance
We�ve all had �Duh!� moments in our business experience � instances
when an insight dawned upon us that was quite obvious, but had been
overlooked. One of my Duh! moments (and I admit to many) occurred in
a company I was running some time ago at a senior staff meeting when
discussions turned to the major challenges we were facing in keeping
up with customer service expectations as our customers rapidly
expanded to one new global location after another.
Duh! moment occurred when a colleague asked, �Have we ever asked our
customers about their expansion plans?� We started to do so, and the
problem never resurfaced. Some customers provided us a very solid
five year plan, and none of them were without an answer. We just had
lesson here is that thinking about what information you need to be
effective in supporting your customers should be among the first
questions you ask of them. If you translate all of the themes
associated with future plans and the evolving business environment
into what insights you need for the decisions your firm is
contemplating, the potential for customer contributions is huge.
That doesn�t eliminate the need for some open-ended discussion about
opportunities and challenges that you might be overlooking, but the
starting point for a future discussion ought to be the arenas in
which you need to be prepared to create shared successes along with
other important lesson that is critical in gaining insights about
the future involves paying attention to the entire customer chain. A
firm�s customer chain is the path that leads from its suppliers all
the way to the final users of its products. In business markets
especially, customer chains can be complex and extend for many
electrical component manufacturer, for example, sold to integrators
who in turn sold to distributors who sold to contractors who handled
installations at end customer sites. The perspective about the
future can vary at each and every stage of the customer chain, with
implications that ripple backwards and forwards. Effective listening
doesn�t stop with direct customers. It�s necessary to listen to all
of the customers. And one trick that best-practice firms employ is
asking customers at each stage of the customer chain what they would
like to know about the other stages of the customer chain. Some
remarkable insights have been gained by simply asking that question.
George F. Brown, Jr., is co-author with Atlee Valentine Pope of the
CoDestiny: Overcome Your Growth Challenges by Helping Your Customers
Overcome Theirs. He is also the CEO and cofounder of Blue Canyon
Partners Inc., a strategy consulting firm working with leading
business suppliers on growth strategy.