Competition for customers has never been more challenging, intensely focused or expensive for manufacturers globally. Instead of relying on throwing prices or continuously adding product line extensions to marginally increase a given product’s market size and potential sales, manufacturers need to get back to what made many of them successful initially, and it concentrates on knowing the unmet customer needs and respond to them with innovative products and solutions better than any competitor globally.
Aggressively getting Voice of the Customer (VoC) initiatives and programs off the ground to drive both ongoing quality programs and fine-tune their product development cycle to meet customers’ unmet needs provides long-term competitive advantages. Any lasting competitiveness must be built on processes that deliver exceptional value to customers with products that meet their unmet needs and exceed their expectations.
Searching for blue seas and global customers: Let the race begin
While the catalyst that launched many manufacturers was innovative products and services that in many cases created entire markets, today’s predominant thinking seems to follow cost reduction as a strategy to exclude new markets. As authors of the book Blue
- Blue oceans cannot be purchased solely through technology innovation. Consider the fact that most of the blue oceans that manufacturers benefit from today are based on existing technology, and it’s clear that just spending a lot on R&D to create brand new markets doesn’t work. Instead, there must be deliberate customer listening strategies, including aggressive VoC programs to fully understand customer needs and adjust existing product and process strengths to meet them. The technology behind the Apple iPod series of personal MP3 players was well known; it was the evolution of the iTunes store, a great demand for personal music that could be quickly stored on a personal MP3 player and used anytime and anywhere, that revolutionized this specific market. For manufacturers, the message is clear; the blue oceans are out there, and it takes concentrated effort to find them through VoC programs and stay close to how customers want to address their unmet needs.
- Defining blue oceans as traditional industries and markets does not work; yet it captures and acts strategically on customers’ changing, unmet needs. Kim and Mauborgne argue that blue oceans defy existing approaches to define them and, as a result, require entirely new product strategies, marketing messages and approaches to meet unmet customer needs. Manufacturers who strip the traditional approaches to business development and creating new ventures have a better chance of uncovering the higher growth and undisputed blue oceans that may be in their customer base. Customers’ approaches to buying, using and recommending your products change dramatically over time; Figuring out how these changes are happening is crucial to finding the blue ocean markets.
- Blue ocean strategies are transforming value / cost equations and forcing manufacturers to adapt activities in pursuit of differentiation and low costs at the same time. For incumbents, this is the aspect of cost reduction that has the greatest potential impact on competing in emerging markets. The ability to trim costs is not used as the Red Sea became even more red with loss; it is about creating such a high level of differentiation in products and delivering such a high value that low cost becomes a more competitive differentiator. It is not the biggest differentiator, but a contributing factor in emphasizing exceptional value for customers in meeting their unmet needs.
For the producers, the consequences of persecuting blue oceans are clear. First, the world is now the playing field, not any state, province or region in which they are located. Globalization has leveled the playing field and brought competitors to the doorstep of the manufacturer, but also provides opportunities to capture customers globally with greater efficiency than ever before.
Fuel for Global Growth: Gaining Customer Insights
Manufacturers need to find the intersection of their core strengths through aggressive VoC programs to find the blue oceans in which their organizations can compete strongly. There are a number of qualitative approaches that manufacturers rely on to gain insight from their customers, and although all are valuable as part of a broader VoC program, the culture of any manufacturer must also change to take advantage of the lessons learned.
No one can afford the luxury of being arrogant and ethnocentric in such a fast-paced and highly competitive, changing world; if any VoC programs are going to force manufacturers out of their comfort zone before market forces do, forcing changes planned versus accidentally. Here are the key approaches manufacturers take to get quality feedback in their VoC programs:
Advisory Council – One of the most effective approaches to gaining insight from customers, which has been wide variation in results obtained by using advice to gain insight into new markets and unmet customer needs. However, the cardinal sin that many manufacturers commit here is either to believe that they already know what their customers’ future plans are, or worse, to view this as a negative experience just because customers will complain about problems they may have had for years. There is no room for such arrogance in such a rapidly changing global economy. Don’t listen to your customers’ complaints and someone else will; and get their business in the process. If ever there was time to throw out the “we already know”: mentality that tends to permeate old-school producers, now is the time because it’s time to fight your customers like never before. In addition, they have insight into how brand new blue sea markets are.
The best-performing advisory boards first recruit from the standpoint of exclusivity and the need to gain insight into the direction customers are going. These are hardly sales events; more often than not, events are where C-level executives gather to share peer-level insights into what works and what is not when it comes to solving major strategic challenges. Symantec’s use of CEO-level advisory advice with its clients has offset them with remarkably strong results as their clients have shared their long-term security strategies and plans, challenges, and sought advice from the highest security experts in the software business. The result: Over two years, Symantec’s platform product strategy direction was perfectly aligned with the needs of their customers.
blogs – If there’s a lesson taken from this article, head to Google, get an RSS Reader set up, and start tracking bloggers who are in your industry. There is an exponential growth of content generated by bloggers and many of them suggest the next blue oceans in the main markets. In addition, many manufacturers have created blogs and even defined blogging policies for their employees.
Using blogs as a means to connect with customers must be down to transparency, honesty and direct. No sugar coating issues, no evasive customer complaints, but ownership and sincerity are critical in the blogosphere. Start by tracking what bloggers say about your business, the industry, and what’s going on in related areas, as this is a great way to keep up with the pulse of what some sort of exponentially growing customer voice is saying.
Focus groups – This is a commonly used qualitative strategy for conducting research, but it can also be used as a VoC program; and should be considered as part of any new product development effort. The use of focus groups has been criticized, but it is yet another way in which manufacturers try to find the blue seas available or them.
Extraction of unstructured content from sales and after-sales feedback including customer complaints – Well-meaning at the time they are almost always ignored when results come back from customers, sales feedback forms and after-sales customer satisfaction, who often bounce-back cards after stack of moving boxes in the marketing director’s closet or under their desk. Because the data is unstructured and difficult to interpret, it is ignored for years. There is good news for the production company’s marketing executives who feel too guilty for throwing these boxes out, yet see a Herculean task of coding them. Companies including Attensity, Cymfony, Island Data and others have software that can interpret unstructured data and create linguistic models based on the results. This is incredibly powerful for finding blue oceans. Consider learning how these tools work to gain greater insight into how to find blue oceans globally.
Wind / loss analysis needs to grow up – The days of simply relying on sound bites as to why business was won or lost should end for any manufacturer who wants to compete more effectively on a global basis. If you are a manufacturer, do not do a thorough analysis of why the best deals were not won, it is now time to start paying more attention to this area of a VoC program. Kill the sound bites, and don’t let them be part of how sales efforts are evaluated; figuring out the specific reasons why a given deal was lost is critical if a manufacturer wants to compete globally with greater strength.
Too many companies get sound bite while their competitors have found brand new markets – their blue sea has arrived – and sound bite is hiding it from a competing manufacturer. Do not sleep in this area where weaknesses are slowly eroding competitiveness. Also, finding out why a customer chose your products and solutions almost always points to a greater clarification of the unique value proposition manufacturers depend on for positioning and identity.
Finding blue oceans is the path to profitability and growth for producers wherever they are. For U.S. manufacturers, their core strength began by uniquely addressing customers’ unmet needs and adapting their product strategies accordingly. It’s time for this nation’s producer to wake up and realize that it doesn’t just have to be about cost reductions and product extensions – in the language of Kim and Mauborgne – Red Sea strategies. Instead of embracing the challenge of finding blue oceans through concerted VoC programs, a strategic priority – and beyond that – must be a passion for change and becoming a stronger global competitor in the process.