Using the Right Analytical Tools to Gain a Better Understanding of Your Customers, Your Competitors, and Yourself

(Originally published in the November/December 2003 issue of AFSMI's Sbusiness.)

By William K. Pollock

Understanding your customers' needs and requirements is a critical element of any organization's strategic, marketing, or CRM plan. However, if you want to compete effectively in today's market, you will also need to understand your competition - as well as your own organization. How do you do this? It's easy - if you have the right analytical tools, and you know where to look.

As far as the tools are concerned, all you really need is some good old-fashioned market research, complemented by objective operations assessment capabilities. As for where you need to look? That's also easy - you go directly to your customers! But, you'll also need to look internally to ensure that you have the right structure and capabilities to meet their needs. A good close look at your competition will also be helpful. Read on to see exactly how using the right analytical tools can help your business compete more effectively!

Understanding Your Customers
The most successful organizations are those that understand their customers - from what makes them "tick", to what "ticks them off", and everything else inbetween. At the most basic levels, some of this understanding may come simply through tracking ongoing sales, service calls, and administrative activities relating to the customer base. However, building an actionable database from these often disparate, informal, and/or otherwise unstructured sources may be difficult, if not impossible. That is why we normally recommend conducting periodic customer surveys to measure, monitor, and track the needs, requirements, expectations, and corresponding satisfaction levels of your customers. Surveying the general marketplace (i.e., your non-customers) from time-to-time is also not a bad idea, as you would probably like to "convert" them to customers at some point in the future, as well.

By routinely conducting customer surveys, your organization will be able to:

  • Determine and prioritize the defining characteristics of product and service support that will best meet your customers' total needs;
  • Identify, measure, and track their corresponding levels of customer satisfaction over time;
  • Determine the relative strengths and weaknesses of the organization and its services offerings;
  • Identify all of the critical areas requiring improvement;
  • Collect data that can be used to set targets or goals for continuous improvement; and
  • Recommend changes to your existing business processes, policies, and organization.
We believe that the most effective customer survey programs are those that provide all of the information and guidance you need to both "fix the system", as well as "fix the customer". Some organizations utilize a customer survey methodology that also generates individual Customer Relationship Case Study profiles to supplement the overall survey findings. In this way, while the organization is spending the time and dollars required to correct its systemwide problems, it can also address the specific problems that are impacting individual customers before they become systemic - or even worse in the interim - customer account "kick-out factors".

Understanding Your Competitors
While not a substitute for either market research or customer surveys, an ongoing program of competitive intelligence gathering and analysis also represents an integral part of any organization's performance benchmarking process. Individual competitor profiles may range anywhere from basic summaries focusing on primary vendor "demographics", general descriptions of product/service offerings, company strengths and weaknesses, and general market information, etc.; to in-depth profiles providing detailed information on organization structure, "go-to-market" strategies, channels of distribution, vertical market focus, major "anchor" accounts, recent "wins" and "losses"; etc.

Many organizations use competitive vendor profiles and reports for multiple purposes, including:
  • As input for strategic, marketing, or CRM plan development;
  • As tactical "roadmaps" for competing more effectively in the marketplace; or
  • For providing their services sales forces with state-of-the-art information that can enhance their ability to sell to the targeted marketplace.
We believe that competitive profiling should be conducted on a customized basis, and that each report, or profile, should focus on generating actionable information that can be used to help the organization compete more effectively. The data should be current, focused, accurate, and readily available to all parties within the organization that can benefit directly from its use (e.g., sales, marketing, CRM, business development, strategic planning, etc.).

There are many types of competitive market research that can be acquired and utilized, including:
  • Competitive Market Overviews - providing an assessment of the general competitive environment in which the organization competes;
  • Competitive Vendor Profiles - providing detailed information on individual services competitors;
  • New Product/Service Announcements - providing up-to-date news, summary descriptions, and synopses of new competitive products and services on an "as happens" basis; and
  • Competitive vendor "Attack and Defend" papers - providing specific, tactical information that can be used to assist the services sales force in effectively countering new competitive "pushes", as they occur.
There are, undoubtedly, many other areas of competitive intelligence that would also serve to support the business in addition to those described above. However, it is important to recognize that while tracking the activities of the competition can provide some key strategic insight into the overall competitive market environment, the organization's primary focus must always be squarely on the customer.

Understanding Yourself
Everyday, there are new tools and technological advances that make it easier for your organization to operate. However, as a result, the old "tried and true" technologies, tools, and processes that have successfully carried your business to this point may no longer be counted on to give you a competitive edge. Many organizations have turned to the use of Internal Services Operations Assessments in order to systematically address the key issues of organizational, operational and functional improvement. However, we have seen very few companies that can hope to successfully accomplish all of this on their own. That is why we believe some outside assistance may be required in most cases - if not only for the expertise, at least for the objectivity in otherwise highly "political" internal environments.

Some of the key areas where outside assistance may be of the greatest value are:
  • Conducting an objective assessment of the existing services operations, organization, and processes;
  • Identifying specific areas where improvements can be made through standardization and/or simplification of business processes, policies, and procedures;
  • Determining more appropriate standards of measurement for monitoring resources utilized (costs), cycle time, quality, efficiency, and productivity;
  • Recommending a specific action plan for addressing new requirements for Information and Communications Technology (ICT), organizational restructuring, operational and/or procedural changes, flow cycle optimization, etc.;
  • Preparing a custom implementation plan, general budget, schedule and assignments; and
  • Conducting an ROI/cost-benefits analysis that quantifies the expected return for all of your efforts.
Revitalizing the business is certainly a valiant goal, and one that fits nicely under the CRM umbrella. But it is also one where you really need to know where you're coming from before you can build a plan for tomorrow! We believe the best place to start is to first take a good, long, hard look at exactly where your organization stands today vis a vis its customers, its competitors, and itself - and then, move forward with a well thought out, carefully constructed, objective, and systematic approach supported by a combination of classic customer and market research, and complemented by an internal operations assessment.

While you may think you already have a good idea of what has to be done to improve the organization, you will still need to rely on these basic analytical tools to ensure that you are always heading in the right direction - and that you are increasingly able to meet your customers' total needs, requirements, and expectations for service.

William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.


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