A leading, industrial controls company was struggling to grow its sales in certain regions and market segments. At first, they assumed they were in a low point of an economic cycle and tried to wait it out. Later, however, it became apparent that competitors’ sales were growing while the client’s sales remained stagnant.
The Client needed to identify and address the reason(s) for the apparent market share loss. Was it an isolated problem or a systemic concern? Top management decided that “the voice of the customer” could provide the answers needed. They ordered the sales force to interview key customers, and the Marketing VP compiled the results. After six weeks, the management team convened to formulate an action plan to fix the problems identified. Unfortunately, no clear prescription for action was evident from the sales force interviews. The process did not identify root causes of problems because:
- Survey questions were too rigid. The formal survey started with a well-defined set of questions, but the client was hoping to uncover other issues, which were not previously known. The questions were not asked in an open-ended fashion to elicit strategic, actionable insights.
- Samples and interviewers were biased. Salesmen contacted their best accounts rather than a more diverse sample covering pertinent vertical markets, strong and weak relationships, etc. Also, they generally did not expose issues that might reflect poorly on their own performance.
- They did not ask all the right questions. Salesmen tended to focus only on the factors directly affecting the purchase of their product, but not on the drivers of customer demand. The interviews often yielded superficial “price and quality” type responses, but failed to identify opportunities for the client to help customers achieve the customer’s business objectives.
Still concerned that they were underperforming in the market, the client met with RSR Marketing Solutions (“RSR”) in search of actionable insights. Through a collaborative process, the client and RSR developed a list of hypotheses and questions, including the following:
Potential Reasons for Apparent Market Share Loss:
Is the problem a regional issue, whereby the sales channel of competitors is more effective and/or more aggressive than ours in a particular region?
Are we underperforming in a certain vertical market? If so, is it because of problems with product quality / performance, pricing, perceived level of expertise, lack of sales coverage, or some other reason?
How well are we executing at key steps in the selling process, e.g. identifying needs, delivery / lead times, technical support, customer service, etc.? Are any specific performance gaps leading to revenue losses?
The Client then asked RSR to test these hypotheses, and determine the root causes of its problems.
RSR Approach and Methodology
Customer selection: RSR selected customers based on the following:
- A specified number of customers were contacted in each vertical market and region
- A balance of strong and weak accounts was contacted, to learn why people do or do not buy from us.
- Different levels (usually engineering, operations, and purchasing managers) were contacted within the customer organization
Primary source interviews were conducted using value-oriented, open-ended questions. RSR interviewed key purchase decision makers to understand not only the current purchasing situation but also their business drivers (e.g. what are the goals of the business?). By learning about the factors that are driving their overall business and integrating these insights into their current purchases, we could determine the value they are seeking from their suppliers.
Integration of interviews to develop a coherent message. RSR summarized the findings by segment to determine patterns. We then tested our findings with additional customers and formed conclusions, which we reviewed with the client.
Research Findings and Business Results
- The Client learned that its problems were both in the front and back end of the sale. They were too often marketing the next generation technology and not being as responsive as competitors in solving customers’ current problems. In addition, the Client’s customer service had deteriorated since it went to an automated customer service system.
- The Client was relatively weak in “non-traditional” industries. As the client’s traditionally strong industries moved offshore, their share declined relative to competitors.
- The Client’s product-based competitive advantages had eroded in the eyes of many customers. Service and relationships, not product features, had become more important to customers. The Client, therefore, had to change its sales and service culture.
This study gave the Client the facts it needed to confidently adjust and more effectively execute its sales and marketing strategy. It is an example of how companies can modify their business model based on professionally-gathered, primary source input from customers.
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