Ask Your Customers What They Want. Then Deliver It.

This week’s Persuasive Marketing Blog Post features marketing pro, Susan Lowe, who has a rich background in product marketing with companies ranging from start-ups to large enterprise companies.  She shares great tips for utilizing online surveys to keep customers happy and loyal to your products.

As good marketers, we should never forget that our job is to bring products or services to the marketplace (B2B or B2C) that fulfill needs and customers want to buy. Of course, our work doesn’t end once the product or service launches. We must continually assess whether those products or services are actually meeting our customers’ needs and to what level of satisfaction.  Adding to the importance of finding out how customers’ assess our product is that their needs may change over time.  We don’t want to miss out on a new opportunity – or worse – lose business to a competitor that makes it their practice to know what the customer is thinking.

Today’s online survey tools provide an easy and cost-effective way to find out what customers think about a company, service levels, products, overall satisfaction and to uncover unmet needs.  Surveys also provide a method by which to confirm your own beliefs about customers’ perceptions.  Once you’ve decided to move forward with an online survey, it is important to set objectives and determine the information you want to obtain from the survey.  Helpful tips and guidance are available at most survey tool websites that can then assist you with planning the survey and developing the questions.  In addition, you will find it useful to send at least one test survey within your organization before sending the live survey to customers.  Running a test allows you to weed out poorly worded questions, measure actual time to complete the survey and provides the opportunity to edit and refine the survey content.

Now you’ve sent the survey and collected the responses from your customers.  What’s next?   The survey results will have a meaningful and positive impact on your business, only if your company is ready to respond to the feedback and take any necessary actions.  The survey information will do your company little good if it is only shown as data points in department presentations.  Based on the results, identify problem areas that need to be addressed immediately and those that are longer-term. Develop an immediate and longer-term plan to address areas for improvement.

Next, communicate to your customers your plans for improvement based on their survey feedback.  They want to know that you are listening and their time was not wasted.  Now you are ready to put together a ‘task’ force that is responsible for executing to the plan and measuring results.  This team will hold meetings, review the plan, set goals, agree on tactics and actions, assign ownership, and set timelines to complete.

When and how frequently should you survey customers? Be pro-active not reactive.  Find out what your customers think early on during product concept and regularly throughout the lifecycle.  It is a continuous process.  Make it a part of your best practice to know what your customers think about you and make improvements as needed.   If you’re not proactive and fall behind in getting customer feedback, it can cost you loyalty, profits and customers.

Keys to Successful Customer Surveys

  1. Identify your goals and objectives and determine what information you want to attain from the survey.
  2. Develop survey questions based on what you want to find out – online tools are available to help you plan the survey and develop the questions.
  3. Ask your customers early on and throughout your relationship what they think about you.
  4. Respond timely to customer feedback.
  5. Develop a plan to address customer responses.  Communicate the plan.
  6. Put a task force together responsible for implementing the plan and measuring improvements.

Product Management and Marketing: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

For this blog post I’ve asked long time friend and colleague, Robert Lonadier to share his insights on the role of product management and the dynamics of its relationship with marketing. Robert’s career spans the gamut of IT hardware, software, and services with an impressive record of achievement as both a product management and product marketing professional – he currently serves as a Senior Product Manager at EMC.
The roles of product management and product marketing have evolved considerably in the 20+ years that I have practiced them. Early in my career, product management and product marketing were largely left to their own devices. Thinking that the positions and function were somehow temporary, we were left to pretty much do as we pleased. Product Management’s job was to tell the engineer’s what the build. “Develop the requirements” they would say. But where to look for the source of the inspiration on what customer’s really wanted? “Talk to Sales and Marketing, they are the ones closest to the customer”.

And the textbooks were not much value, either. They either focused on consumer product management; large numbers of customer’s whose preferences were measured in tenths of a percentage of market share. Does anyone remember the Cola Wars? It’s no surprise these techniques did not transfer over well. A few innovative researchers, including Eric von Hippel of the Sloan School of Management, looked at how lead users identify the source of innovation, often in very surprising and unpredictable ways. Product Marketing grew out of the need to support sales. Help make Sales go more smoothly by greasing the skids. Provide “air cover” to Sales. It really took the classic microprocessor battles of the late 1970s (a good read on the subject is “Marketing High Technology” by William Davidow) for Product Marketing to hit its stride

Given how the disciplines evolved, product management and product marketing often have an uneasy relationship. So many functions can easily fall into each other’s bucket. There is even a well-respected product management body of knowledge called “Pragmatic Marketing”. So, it’s no surprise that many practitioners are confused about the proper roles between the two functions. And management is not making this easier by often times lumping the functions together and not properly defining the roles.

Product Management and Marketing’s Guide to Harmonious Co-Existence

So, what is a product manager and product marketer to do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Reach out to your product marketing/product management counterpart(s). Do not wait for management to step in and suggest this. Seize the initiative.
  • Clarify the roles and responsibilities up front. Especially if there is nothing already documented.
  • Be flexible. Depending on the skill level and capability of your product management/marketing counterpart, you may need to adjust what your contribution is in order to ensure that there are no gaps.
  • Remember you’re both on the same team and the real goal is to help your company reach its sales numbers.

The future of both disciplines is bright as the roles of product management and product marketing are critical to the development and marketing of successful products.  Companies that can clearly define and embrace both roles are more likely to see better overall results in bringing sellable products to market.

Is it Time to Get Real with Your Marketing?

Like many of my fellow marketers, I am by nature a rose-colored glasses kind of person. I can put a positive spin on just about anything. And if an overly complex product gets labeled “feature rich,” I’m okay with it.

It is like real estate listings where a small house is dubbed “charming” and a total dump is a “fixer upper’s dream.” To me these twists on terms are acceptable because it suits my view of the world.

But in marketing, above all else, it is our responsibility to understand prospective buyer’s needs, wants and desires. It is our mission to correctly frame our product’s value proposition and support the sales cycle with the information prospective customers need to make a buying decision in favor of the product we represent.

Sara Gate’s post on “IT Buyers Search for the Truth and Come Up Empty Handed” forces us to examine whether standard technology vendor marketing practices have failed to meet this responsibility.

Most IT buyers are practical, analytical, cautious and maybe even a bit cynical (okay, some are very cynical). After reading hundreds of technology vendor data sheets – inflated with exaggerated claims, ROI and cost saving numbers – it is easy to see why a lack of trust has evolved.

The truth about product functionality, cost of ownership, and deployment requirements seem like reasonable requests. But I can hear the conversation now about providing “real” answers to these questions: “But our competitors say…” “We will build that functionality if someone buys it.” “Under the right circumstances, a company could deploy our product in a day.” Yeah right, like if the world stopped spinning!

So the question becomes, how real is real enough to win back the trust of IT buyers and where do we draw the line? Microsoft is not going to change its Vista marketing materials to read, “Guaranteed to crash your system” nor would I advocate it.

But perhaps it is time to face the truth that whether we like it or not, the ability to share information (the good and the bad) is rapidly evolving thanks to the rise of social media. And people, in general, are fed up with the Stepford Wife approach to marketing.

Over time, the impact of this trend will be widespread, leaving vendors with a choice to (1) uphold their idealist views of their product and continue to alienate IT buyers, or (2) inject more realism into their marketing.

If you decide in favor of realism, here are a few ideas on how to win back the trust of IT buyers without losing the sale:

  • Stop marketing vaporware or product features that don’t exist. I am not sure how many companies would admit they do this, but the practice is widespread. And when you aren’t fooling anyone anymore, it is time to drop the act.
  • Don’t try to be so perfect. IT buyers have been through enough deployments to know that they never go off without a hitch. So next time you write a case study, don’t leave out that challenge your customer faced during deployment. Instead focus in on how they overcame the obstacle. Prospective buyers will appreciate the honesty and feel better prepared for their own deployment.
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because your competitors claim they can save companies 90%, doesn’t mean you should. If you cannot support the claim, don’t make it. Prospective buyers would rather see a documented case study with hard numbers that supports a 20% reduction in costs, than be given an empty over-inflated promise.
  • Respond to the conversation. If your marketing materials emphasize usability features, and yet the word on the street is that your user interface sucks, perhaps it is time to pick a new angle for your product until the usability issues are fixed. Tools like Monitter, BoardTracker and Technorati can help you track what people are saying on Twitter, message boards and in the blogosphere.
  • Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. The days of sweeping bad news under the carpet are gone. Be the first to tell your customers if something goes wrong and let them know what you are doing to solve the problem. They will be much more willing to forgive and forget (and you may even win some devoted fans in the process). Social media tools like Twitter are great for spreading your “not so good” news with a personal touch.

It’s your turn …
Share your thoughts, ideas and perspectives on technology vendors’ approach to marketing, IT buyers growing distrust, and how marketers should respond.