Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Spend a Day in the Life of Your Customers

At the June ASP networking breakfast, Jennifer von Briesen of Frontier Strategy shared her experience and her thinking on her work with clients like du Pont on becoming more externally focused by “spending a day with your customer.” Adapted from an approach developed by Francis Gouillart and Frederick Sturdivant, her method involves working with key customers at each link of a product value chain. The process begins by bringing internal stakeholders, such as members of the sales team, together in a workshop situation to identify organizational issues and opportunities. This points the researcher in the direction of which customers to talk to and what, in somewhat general terms, to talk about with them about.

As many as twenty-five extended interviews might be done with customers in their own work environment in the course of one analysis. Typically, each interview yields a 10 page report that places the customer’s input into a larger context. Videotapes are also used to capture customer body language when reflecting on different elements of product or service usage. Where possible, Jennifer engages in these conversations with a client’s existing customers, in part because it builds a stronger company/customer partnership.

Jennifer illustrated the approach with an example from the agricultural sector, where she was looking for new growth opportunities. She spent time on corn, rice, and hog farms interviewing their managers, including some her were lost customers. In this instance, she discovered that her client company’s chemicals were not easily coming out of the devices into which they were placed. The customers were having to put a number of chemicals together in large water vats in order for them to be used. This led to the creation of a new valve being placed on the company’s chemicals, which took the farmers’ system of usage more fully into account.
In another instance, Jennifer described her work with a paint manufacturer that produces products used by car body shops. She interviewed players along the value chain from insurance company representatives to people who had accidents to body shop owners. One body shop reminded her of a beauty salon, with plants and comfortable chairs. The owner told her that more than 60% of the people who dropped off the cars were women who were in a traumatized and stressed out condition as a result of the damage sustained by their vehicles. The owner wanted to do things to communicate their empathy for their customers. Jennifer’s observation of this attention to the details of a relationship led her client to offer a whole new dimension to the service context it provided to the body shops that bought their pain. The improvements they made in the information and perspective held by their sales organization and their products were part of a larger strategic context.

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