Customer attitudes, preferences, and behaviors naturally change over time. But in the last few years — given the enormous economic and political uncertainties we now face, coupled with the ways social media and mobile technologies are upending how we interact and transact — attitudes and behaviors have been changing faster and more precipitously than ever before!
These kinds of dramatic shifts have the potential to be lethal to businesses — as they have nearly been for both Netflix and Blackberry. In each case, the miscalculations that have wreaked havoc on their stock prices and reputations were completely avoidable. The sad truth is that both companies got locked into their own perceptions of value and lost track of what it was their customers valued about their offerings.
In Netflix’s case this was truly bone-headed, because the company had been an early leader in using analytics to understand customer viewing preferences. But it didn’t bother to examine what its customers wanted or would accept when it came to pricing and packaging. In Blackberry’s case, company leaders failed to understand that past successes don’t guarantee future success.
And, dear colleague, either of these fates is certain to be yours if you don’t learn how to listen closely to the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in your customers’ preferences and behaviors.
We recently completed an engagement for a client that for the last decade or so has been a leader in its market niche. By most measures, including revenues, this company had a great year in 2011. But when we looked more closely at how the preferences and buying behaviors of its target clients have been changing over the last few years, and at what was causing these changes, we recognized that our client was in serious jeopardy.
Through diligent secondary market research and state-of-play analysis, we came to understand that the conversations players in this space were having about their needs, problems, and risks had changed dramatically in just a few short years. As a result, even though our client had a highly rated best-of-breed solution, it was now at risk of being locked out of critical conversations with customers and partners.
Fortunately, our research showed that our client did not have fundamental issues with its offerings or technologies. Our analysis proved that its problems lie in how it viewed its market, its relationships, and its perceptions of how it creates, delivers, and communicates value. We saw that our client needed to take action to change how it thought about customer problems, how it talked about the kinds of outcomes it could enable, how its team members communicated the company’s value proposition, and — most important of all — to whom they chose to tell their story.
Our two most important strategic recommendations to this client were as follows:
First, we recommended: “Stop looking at your market as if through a keyhole.” The company had always positioned itself as a provider of specialized niche solutions — a niche that it had successfully defended for many years because of the high quality of its offerings. But in a market where buyer preferences were rapidly shifting away from best-of-breed and toward enterprise solutions, our client was at risk. It needed to be able to see a bigger picture, the whole picture, and tell a more convincing enterprise-wide story.
Our researched showed that much larger competitors were rapidly encroaching on our client’s space. More troubling, competitors were also masterfully shifting the conversation — away from any focus on the kinds of problems that our client addresses and toward a focus on problems that the competitors were better positioned to solve. In the process, competitors were not just redirecting the conversation, they were also locking up spend decisions.
Second, we recommended: “Start looking at the whole chessboard, not just the niche in which you play.” Although our client recognized it was facing a new kind of competitive threat, the management and sales team didn’t know what to do about it, other than trying to compete more aggressively. But, based on experience, we knew that smarter, more strategic plays always trump plays that are simply more aggressive.
To give you a frame of reference about what we recommended, watch the following short YouTube™ video excerpt from the TV show The West Wing™: “Look at the whole board”
Playing a strategy game in chess requires knowing a lot more than simply what moves you can make on any given play. It requires being able to think many moves ahead, so that you can anticipate and execute series of plays that will position you for competitive advantage. It also requires thinking about getting into the head of your opponent as you play. It’s much more difficult, but your chances of success go up exponentially when you can play this kind of game.
The chessboard analogy is particularly apt when it comes to dealing with changing buyer preferences and behaviors. One move by a key competitor or one set of moves by a group of angry customers can turn a company’s prospects of future success completely on end. But smart strategies — ones that take into consideration the whole chessboard — executed by smart leaders — people who know how to read the whole board and play strategically — make it possible for firms to anticipate, as well as plan, execute, and respond effectively when shifts occur.
Timothy Gendreau, founder and principal of The Gendreau Group (www.gendreaugroup.com), is an expert in revenue strategy development. He has a proven ability to create strategies that produce real revenues and enhance valuation by identifying high-value, non-obvious distribution strategies. Contact him at email@example.com. You can contact him at 760.635.0808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.