Today I was reading a cautionary tale about restaurant ownership, and one of the issues was the problem the owner had run into with pricey real estate and long-term leases. For sure, there are some businesses where you absolutely must “be there” – where space is important – and in these cases you should push for the best you can afford, as soon as possible. For most businesses, though, when you think about the “where” of your business, you’ll be stronger in the long run if you build flexibility into your plan.
Let me give you an example. One consultant we know (we’d say “headhunter”, but he wouldn’t) had lots of corporate clients, back in the days when businesses like his usually had large, pricey offices in the financial core of their city. Those kinds of businesses often relied on the prestige of real estate to convey a message of reliability, dependability, and success. Our friend got into the executive shared office space in its very early days. No one knew that his Bay Street address was only a mail-drop and answering service. After all, he went to the clients. But since people still wrote letters for business back then, his address looked very impressive on business cards and letterhead. Fast forward to today, and you’ll find that many businesses have no physical space at all. Consultants, coaches, advisors and more, have found that they can carry out their business very well in the virtual space, or by going to where their clients are. On the rare occasion when they need to host a meeting, they can do it in a rented-for-purpose location like a hotel meeting room or a co-working space. This doesn’t just apply to knowledge workers, though. Think about all of the direct-selling operations that don’t have storefronts, but sell through home parties. Or online businesses. And what about our restauranteur? What about catering with a rental kitchen, or food pop-ups, or other creative locations?
When you’re planning your business, ask yourself what the space signifies to the customer, and whether you can achieve that signal in another way that’s less costly, and that ties up less of your resources. We’ve spent so much time making remote work possible for employees of large organizations, there’s no reason you can’t build this into your own business, as well.
Excellent news! You’ve found the key to your customer’s “job to be done” with your product our service. You’ve focused on only the prospects who have proven they want to invest time, money, and effort in doing the job. So, what could possibly go wrong?
Although we’d all like to believe that our service, gizmo, or gadget is the only choice our customer will ever need or want, the truth is, there are very few cases where that’s true. More often, we have to compete with something, or someone. This is the tricky bit. When it comes to describing why that service, gizmo, or gadget is better, our mindset can be a real barrier. This goes double if wat we’re selling is our own talents and capabilities. Where is the line between confidence, and over-confidence? How do you know the difference between “my way of doing this is better”, or “my product/shop/invention is better”, and “I’m better”? Reconciling the tension between innovator and impostor is often what will make or break the sale.
How can you make sure that tension doesn’t “snap” the sale? First, write down the story you’re planning to tell (whether that’s your pitch to a new boss, or to a new client). What are the advantages you’re describing? Are they real? Are you confident you’re telling the truth? If not, where isn’t it working? Fix the facts, not the adjectives. If the facts are true, but your discomfort has to do with feeling boastful, or bragging, ask yourself whether it would sound true, if your biggest supporter was saying it. If it would, then you’ve got some work to do, because the problem is you.
When you feel like an impostor or a liar when you tell your story, this feeling is transmitted to the person watching or listening, even if you don’t realize that. It’s fine to be humble. It’s not fine to be modest. New business people often confuse the two, especially if they don’t have much selling experience. Humble means unassuming – not taking too much for granted. Modest can mean that, too, but it also means shy, or uncertain. And who would be confident buying something that even the salesperson isn’t not certain of? No one.
So, the next time you’re preparing to make a sale, give yourself time in advance to practice. Write the story so you’re sure it’s true. Check your facts. Read it in the voice of your biggest supporter. Use the adjectives they would use. Then say it out loud until you’re confident, and make sure your own fear of the spotlight isn’t standing in the way of your success.
We've said many times, that the best way to market is to find a customer, create a solution to a problem or a need for them, and sell it to them. We stand by that. While you're busy creating that solution or figuring out how to fill the need (the job to be done, to paraphrase Clay Christensen), someone else may show them the next best option. Also, if you want other people to sell your product or service for you, by describing it to their networks, you need to know what it is that you sell. So which comes first? Customer, or product?
The first truth is this: knowing your customer is absolutely critical. The second truth is this: you need money to have a viable, ongoing business. And the third: sooner or later, to get money, you're going to have to sell something - whether that something is a product or a service. Revenue is how you pay the bills, pay yourself, fund the work, even if you're a social enterprise or not-for-profit. Remember: not-for-profit doesn't mean, "doesn't bring in money".
So how do you figure out what it is that you sell? If it's a widget, a chicken, or an egg, you've got the beginning of a description. If it's more complicated, you need to be able to distill your product (or service) description down to something even your grandma or your five-year-old nephew could explain. Why? Simple: because the more people who know how to describe what you sell and why it's great, the more unofficial salespeople you can have out there in the world, for free, generating leads for you. So go ahead. Break all those rules we've told you about customer focus, and take some time to figure out the easiest way to describe what it is you sell. You'll be glad you did.
This morning one of our connections posted a reminder that we are at the end of the quarter. Now we're bracing for the inevitable. At least one client is bound to call or email today with a panicky-sounding voice, about how they need research or strategy work, because they've just realized we are at the end of the quarter, and they really, truly, meant to get started in January.
Does this sound like someone you know? If you're in the business of customer understanding or user insights, and this happens, it can be tempting to respond by taking your hard-won budget, and doing a study that answers all of their questions...at this point in time. Will that let you see everything you need to know?
Snapshots can be really helpful, it's true. It's worth considering, though, whether a time exposure might reveal something extra. Setting up a program that opens the aperture to your customers and lets data flow in over time, can reveal patterns in ways that a single study can't do (no matter how powerful). And sometimes it can be inexpensive to do this, by giving a "camera" to each of your customer-facing colleagues.
Setting up a story bank where their pictures and observations can be gathered and shared is a really useful way to do this. (Don't know how to start? Let's talk. We can help.)
How do you feel when something doesn't go as planned? Disappointed? Frustrated? Annoyed?
What about energized, excited, or enthusiastic?
Over the past few weeks, I've been working with a client to get ready for an important strategy session. They know there are big shifts looming on the horizon, and they want to be ready. They've done the right thing by taking a proactive approach, and they've been looking at data, exploring potential outcomes, and discussing "how might we" scenarios. Yet suddenly, in the midst of a session with outside partners, key team members, and even an advisor from head office, they weren't making headway. Someone said, "Let's change the focus entirely!"
Now there are times when this might just be a tactic to avoid hard conversations, but in this case, it was because they realized they were looking at the problem through the wrong lens. Their problem definition was out of whack, and they got clarity on this because they had everyone in the room, and because they weren't so married to the facilitation method they had chosen, that they kept trying to force-fit solutions to the wrong problem. Once they stepped back and framed the challenge in a new way, they were able to very quickly devine the realm of possible scenarios, determine how they could respond to these in their own favour, and what proactive steps they could take right now, to get ready for the most likely eventualities.
The change in energy in the room at the end of the day was palpable. And as a facilitator, it was a pretty spectacular ending for me, as well.
It’s Shrove Tuesday, or as some like to call it, “Pancake Tuesday”. Originally, on this day, Christians made their confession in preparation for Lent, the days that lead up to Easter. They were forgiven for their sins, or “shriven” – hence, “Shrove Tuesday”. They also finished off any tempting foods – rich fats, eggs, cream, and so on – as they prepared to emulate Christ's 40 days in the desert. Pancakes were an easy way to do that. Nowadays, all that remains for many people is the idea that today is a day for pancakes.
Why all this religious explanation in a blog where we usually talk about research, strategy, and customer understanding? Because just like Shrove Tuesday, what you tell your customer about yourself (the preparation, scorekeeping, and effort) isn’t the most important part of your story – what your customer believes about you is. That’s what they’ll communicate to others, and that’s what will impact the reputation of your company, your brand, or you. Give them your best, make sure they know your true story, and maybe they’ll remember more than the pancakes.
Learning about the technical specs of a scientific innovation. Exploring country data from the CIA. Studying environmental protection regulations. Investigating commitments to climate-change agreements in multiple countries. Researching trade data on purchasing patterns in five different verticals. Interviewing key stakeholders in the three most promising industrial sectors.
What do these things have in common? They were all part of an “unknown unknowns” exploration we did for a client of ours. If you’re in an established business, with multiple competitors, chances are, there’s data out there to help you make key market decisions. If you sell soup, soap, or shampoo, there are often standard reports than can be purchased quickly, and many case studies to help guide your thinking. But if you’ve invented a new scientific/industrial/biotech/pharma type thing, that theoretically has multiple applications, in several verticals, how do you make an argument that it’s possible to commercialize? When we set out to do a market landscape for a product that’s almost ready to market, there isn’t usually a simple answer ready and waiting. Instead, we do a deep dive with you about your product. Then we use our expertise at multi-modal research to decide the best way to narrow down your options, as cost-effectively as possible. Finally, we find experts on the ground who have similar or related expertise, to help us get the answers you need to make critical decisions about your business. That’s what we did with the exploration at the start of this story.
The good news? At the end of it all, our client got an innovation grant that helped him and his team to scale their operations, and a few years later, they’re running a thriving business with operations in multiple countries and for several industrial verticals. We’re proud to have played a small part in that. All because we like to help our customers see everything, and make better decisions.
There’s so much great survey software out there, I’ll just do the project myself!
Does this sound familiar? It can be tempting to undertake all your customer research on your own. After all, who knows your product or service better than you? Why would you ask an outsider to get involved?
Experts bring objectivity
It can actually be quite helpful to bring someone in who isn’t as familiar with your product, your service, or even your customer, as you are. Much like the Buddhist concept of the “beginner’s mind”, a professional researcher adds value precisely because they don’t have the level of immersion that you do. It allows them a certain level of openness, freedom to explore, and license to ask “stupid questions” for which your best customers or prospects might not grant you the benefit of the doubt. How else can they help?
They have a big toolkit, and they know what to use, when
What if a survey isn’t even the tool you need? Just as you are able to work with your customers to provide them with the best solution to their problem, strategic researchers can help you to determine, based on your objectives, the very best research method to use, to get the answers you need. Making a forecast? You definitely need a quantitative approach for at least some of the work. Interested in seeing whether your customers are able to explain your concept to others? A focus group or research community may be a more appropriate tool.
They’re experts in finding the right respondents – even amongst your current customers
Beyond this, experienced research experts work to make sure you are screening for the very best respondents – those who are really able to articulate their opinions and ideas. Moreover, a great research partner will help you figure out whether there is value in exploring sub-segments or groups of individuals who exhibit specific qualities (lots of experience with your product, versus none, for example, or language or cultural groups that resemble your new target market).
When the data comes in, they know what to look for
Let’s say you go ahead and you do host and field a survey on your own. What happens if you forgot an important question? Or if you put a lot of open-ended questions in there, and now you don’t know what to do with all those verbatims? It can be really helpful to have that second set of eyes to look at the questions, pilot, and test them. They can bring their experience to the table in structuring the questions to yield answers that will be useful and actionable. Then, when the answers are in, they are great at separating the “nice to know” answers from those that really go to the heart of your objectives.
They’ll help you build a story that will keep your team engaged
Beyond just asking the questions, research practitioners are also storytellers. They don’t just produce pie charts or pretty pictures – they create a narrative that moves your colleagues from why you asked the questions in the first place, to what it means for your organization, and what you can do with the findings. This will encourage them to ask questions of their own, to be on the lookout for additional clues, and will help keep them from getting distracted by red herrings.
There’s plenty of value in engaging your customers and asking them questions – and in hearing the answers for yourself. It can also be worth the investment to work with a partner if you want to maximize your research ROI. It’s a little like that old adage: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Shouldn't you skip right to your own custom survey? We're always happy at PANOPTIKA to help you with custom research, but there's really more to it than that. Even if you're working in an industry like health, technology, or science (where we do some of our best work), where sometimes there isn't much data, there's always some. If you're a new analyst in one of these industries, or you're just getting into research for the first time (sometimes, until you start to scale, it’s easier and more informative just to ask the questions yourself), start with free or nearly free. Those public data sets get a lot of use – they’re the workhorses of the quadrant we call “the light”. The answers there are available to anyone – and that doesn't mean they don’t provide you with any value or advantage.
Public data sets or their slightly more expensive cousins, syndicated data, (which is not public, but is available to purchase by anyone who can pay), are a great foundation. They let you get the “lay of the land”. In “The Light”, you’re setting yourself up for deeper questions, making sure you don’t waste time and money on custom projects, if the information is already out there. Doing a good audit of the data you already have in house is where you can start to use data in ways that others can’t. Think sales data, observational research where you see how customers use your products (or the competition’s), and interviewing everyone in your organization who interacts with your customer or prospect. Where an outside consultant can help, is by assisting you in shaping the questions that you’ll use as you move to what we call “The Shades” - positioning or perception research is a good example. It can help you see where customers put everyone – not only you and your product or service, but your competition. And it can help you get ready to develop insights that are only known to you and your team. Not sure where to start with something like that? We’re always happy to jump on a discovery call. You tell us your questions, and we’ll work with you to lay out a plan to get the answers you need.
This is the PANOPTIKA Understanding Matrix© - a model that can help you think about where you need more business intelligence, and what kinds. It's based on the Johari Window, which was developed by psychologists Luft and Ingham, to help individuals to understand themselves and their relationship to others around them. It's also well suited to thinking about positioning of your product, service, or company, as well as the foundation for your business or customer intelligence strategy.
The Darkness is that area that was highlighted by that famous (infamous) Donald Rumsfeld quote about "unknown unknowns" - Luft and Ingham simply called it the Unknown. Market or product intelligence won't reveal what might happen there, but there are still things that you and you and your colleagues can do to develop the sorts of responsiveness and resilience that will help you prepare for being plunged into a situation that even the best research couldn't predict. Scenario planning or war games - developing a whole series of "what-ifs" and the potential results is one way. We also like to use metaphor-based research techniques that free up your thinking. With tools such as Conteneo's Weave® platform, we can even conduct sessions with remote users around the globe. The unanswerable questions can't be answered, but anything that gets you outside your normal frame of reference to a place where you can't rely solely on data can help you be ready to work your way back to the light, when the darkness descends.
Megann and Steve, Partners in PANOPTIKA, are working for our clients every day to help them See Everything. Here are some of the things we see.