by D. Keith Pigues

When I co-authored Winning with Customers: A Playbook for B2B (Wiley & Sons) nearly a decade ago, selecting Why We Lose as the title of the first chapter was indeed an attention getter! We debated whether the first chapter should have a more positive or upbeat title – would it be mistaken as too provocative, alarmist or maybe even exaggerated. After taking a step back from the chapter naming decision and considering the state of affairs in many organizations as leaders grappled with the key decisions to increase organic growth, we concluded there was no more fitting title for the opening chapter.

Since that time, my colleagues and I have worked with countless organizations – large and small, in every part of the world and across industries – supporting their efforts to develop organic growth strategies for their business. These additional very real experiences have only served to reaffirm the starting point for any leadership team in the development of a winning growth strategy – asking the tough questions. Chief among them is “Why are we where we are at this moment on the journey?” In the book we offered the Six Reasons Why We Lose:

  • We don’t understand the customer’s perspective.
  • There is not enough quantitative rigor.
  • Data collected never finds its way into planning or execution.
  • We rely on individual surveys versus a continuous process.
  • The organization is not aligned or involved.
  • There is no systematic playbook.
  • Time and experience have only served to reinforce why it’s important for leaders and their teams to examine these areas in considering how to accelerate and sustain, the often elusive, profitable organic growth. We’ve gained new insights in each of these six areas over the past decade. One of the inhibitors to growth that is particularly important as organizations prepare to restart growth in 2021 and beyond is the first on the list. We don’t understand the customer’s perspective.

    We generated the list of organic growth obstacles a decade ago because this was an unfortunate reality for many organizations and, for some companies this continues to be the number one reason why they are where they are at this moment on the journey to win with their customers. Organizations that find themselves facing this reality do so, in large part, because they lack meaningful engagement with the right people in the customer’s organization. While they may spend considerable time meeting with people who make decisions or influence the purchase of their products or services, these interactions and discussions often do not include the most critical customer participants and therefore lack the substance required to gain a deep and actionable understanding of the customer’s perspective of the current relationship.

    Engaging with the right people in the customer organization is always the first wake-up call moment. I vividly recall an exchange with the account leader for a client’s major account sales team. We were helping the team identify the customer contacts for a meeting intended to gain the customer’s perspective of the current relationship and to assess the impact of our client’s value proposition. The account leader felt strongly that the customer’s VP of Manufacturing would provide the best perspective of the impact received from the purchase and use of the chemical products supplied by his company. We encouraged the account team to consider additional key customer representatives beyond the customer’s manufacturing organization where they spent most of their time day-to-day. By doing so, the team achieved a major breakthrough. The true primary beneficiaries of value for the chemical products sold to the customer were the general manager of the business and the global brand manager. Why? Well, the chemicals being purchased by the customer, a consumer tissue manufacturer, were the key ingredients that delivered the tissue softness lauded by consumers. Tissue softness was the number one driver of the customer’s market share growth and premium pricing in the market versus other tissue products, and yes, this was attributed directly to the unique properties of our client’s chemical products. Adding these additional customer participants, or beneficiaries of value, whose success was enabled by the market share growth and premium pricing impact from our client’s unique chemicals, helped the team gain valuable customer insight and competitive intelligence that would have otherwise been omitted from their fact base when making key growth decisions. This is just one of many examples we’ve witnessed that underscores the difficulty to truly understand the customer’s perspective if organizations do not engage with the right people that can provide critical insights to understand the value of the relationship. The first step to understand the customer’s perspective is engaging with the right members of the customer organization.

    The second and equally important step is having the right discussion with the beneficiaries of value.  We have coined a phrase that captures the essence of the conversation required to truly understand the customer’s perspective.  It’s about having the right conversation, with the right people, about the right things, in the right way, at the right time!

    Having the right discussion with customer’s beneficiaries of value, which results in a deeper understanding of their perspective, requires leaders and their teams to do something that we have found to be challenging for many – adopting an outside-in perspective. (As a side note, we included an entire section in the book to help with this important issue). This may be the greatest challenge we help organizations overcome. When business teams spend most of their time focused on the features and benefits of their products and services, or their internal perspective of what they do for customers and how it compares to competition, it can lead to a real blind spot – the customer’s perspective. At the end of the day, the customer’s perspective of what you provide and how it contributes to what they care about (their growth, their profit, their competitive advantage in the market, etc.) is a necessary posture for organizations to win with their customers. Given what your customers may have recently experienced as a result of the abrupt market changes, there is no better time than now to check-in and determine if you and your customer are aligned on the value your offerings are delivering today.  Are they providing the value they once did or are they are producing even more value than they did in the past? Uncovering both will have real implications for your growth and profitability – there may be a need to make improvements or reposition your offerings, or you may find an opportunity to increase pricing to capture additional value realized by your customers due to market shifts.

    Before rushing off to have this discussion with the customer, we offer a few recommendations to prepare for this important dialogue:

  • Plan to have a discussion with the customer about their business and resist the temptation to sell them something! There will be a time to move into sales mode, but it is not during this discussion.
  • Take a dose of curiosity and seek to understand the customer’s perspective of how your offerings impact their business. This begins with developing your internal perspective of how your offerings actually impacted the customer’s business in the recent past – not what you hoped for or aspire to do. A bit of humility may also be useful, as customers may not share your perspective in all areas – in fact, this occurs in nearly every instance.
  • Tune your mind-set and ears for a good listening session. This may require a major adjustment for some organizations. Be prepared to listen for over 95% of the meeting and speak only to introduce yourselves, review the agenda, provide clarification where needed and confirm follow-up actions. This is very challenging for some organizations, but a requirement to truly understand the customer’s perspective.
  • Last, pick the right time for this discussion. If you’re in the midst of contract negotiations, you may want to plan another time for this discussion to get more transparent responses. Also, we must note that equal success can be achieved during a time when things are going well in the relationship, as well as when things are not going so well.
  • Now is the time to ask the tough questions, gain your customers’ perspective and make the key growth decisions more confidently to restart and accelerate growth!