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Quite often I’m at the receiving end of plaintive cries from middle managers who are unable to convince their superiors of the necessity of a new course of action or an updated marketing strategy. The situation is particularly prevalent in family-owned firms and smaller, entrepreneurial enterprises where a strong culture prevails and, in many cases, marketing thinking is trapped in the headlock of an earlier generation. In those situations, how do you convince the boss that it’s time for some fresh thinking, some new behavior, the sweeping out of the old and its replacement with the new? Let’s face reality: hidebound senior managers are normally cynical in the extreme. “I know how the customer thinks,” they say. “It will cost too much,” they complain. “I see no reason to change,” they assert. All the while, you know that you’re being left behind, that your product line is getting tired and out of date, that so much more can be done if you just had free reign to refresh the marketing strategy and increase the budget while you’re at it. How can you make recalcitrant management see it your way? It doesn’t matter what you say, how logical you are, how well-reasoned your arguments may be, the only way to change a mindset is to bring in outside opinion, the more independent, the better. In some cases, an outside consultant, a specialist in the field, will do the trick, although in my experience most stubborn decision makers tend to be wary of consultants for any number of reasons both real and imagined. The best solution is to let your customers do the talking. Conduct research and let the honesty and candor of that research be your best weapon. What are the research alternatives? Here are a few: ? Diary Panel. This is a group of consumers who are polled on a regular basis (quarterly, semi-annually, annually), almost like a jury. The size of the panel will be statistically proportional to the breadth of your marketplace (local, regional, national). Issues that are put to the panel include performance tracking, new-product feedback, marketing tactics, anything and everything that relates to the consumer’s perception of the company and brand and their performance. Diary Panel formation and execution is best handled by an outside research firm proficient in the field and the technique. ? Annual Tracking Study. This quantitative research technique, conducted by phone or mail survey, tracks usage and attitude patterns with respect to the company or brand over an ongoing period of time, normally on an annual basis. Again, the technique calls for a statistically valid sample of consumers who are polled on a variety of marketing issues, perceptions, strengths and weaknesses of the brand, as well as buying behavior. These attributes can be tracked for competitive brands as well to gauge performance in the marketplace vis a vis the competition. The most important learning involves the variation from year to year around a specific point of perception or behavior. For example, what’s the consumer’s reaction to our pricing and our in-store performance and how has that changed in the consumer’s mind with the advent of new competition? Research of this type is best left in the hands of an outside research firm. ? Focus Group. The traditional focus group involves a panel of customers and/or non-customers who take part in a roundtable discussion moderated by a professional facilitator. This qualitative research technique is not based on statistical purity. It’s not meant to reflect the opinion of the whole. What it does do is provide in-depth, diagnostic feedback with respect to consumer thinking and behavior. It’s also a great way to hear customers tell you why they don’t like you. And, if senior management is watching the proceedings behind the one-way mirror, it can be particularly effective in making the point. I’ve seen many a manager walk out of a focus group viewing room with hair turned white, having heard customers bash the brand in no uncertain terms. It’s particularly sobering to be told that your baby is ugly. Inexpensive focus groups can be conducted internally, but the most effective method is to employ an outside firm for recruiting, facilitation and facility. ? Mystery Shopper. A great technique for the retail environment. Independent shoppers, unknown to the front counter personnel, shop the store, sometimes with hidden camera, and report the findings to senior management after the fact. The technique is also used to assess phone behavior and response. There are a number of local and regional firms that specialize in this technique. ? In-Store Tracking. At a bare minimum, don’t hesitate to ask customers to complete a “How Are We Doing?” card. It’s the card that sits on dresser or the desk in most hotel rooms. Seek feedback, particularly complaints, about poor customer service. Keep the cards simple to fill out an easy “check the box” or “rate on a scale of 1 to 5.” Have the cards postage-paid with a return address that will guarantee that all responses are forwarded to a responsible senior manager. As an added incentive, consider a sweepstakes contest or a special offer for those who take the time to respond. Once the customer has spoken and the results have been tabbed and summarized, communicate your findings in a straightforward, methodical form. Be willing to present them without embellishment to senior management. While the research should speak for itself, don’t hesitate to highlight key findings and be willing to draw conclusions where they make sense. Stress the validity and the credibility of your methodology. And, let the consumers be heard in their own voice. Many is the time that I’ve compiled three or four minutes of edited audio and/or video footage from focus groups or one-on-one surveys. The statement heard or seen from the customer’s mouth is always more compelling than the same statement summarized on paper. Only a fool would ignore or dismiss what the customer or prospect has to say. They are always the final arbiter. They carry power, authority, credibility and the ability to convince even the most stodgy management to change its ways. It might be what you need to force that change of opinion within your own resistant environment. Alf Nucifora is an Atlanta-based marketing consultant. He can be contacted via e-mail at zubicon@aol.com, through his web site at www.nucifora.com, or by fax at 770-952-7834.

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