‘Listening’ to your customers. Quantifying ‘Customer Segments’. Identifying ‘Unmet’ needs. A bunch of gibberish? Well, most of all a dangerous dog turd on the pavement for managers. And nobody wants to slip over that, do we?

Defining the battlefield

Almost all companies nowadays hire market research agencies to quantify and neatly define customer segments and miraculously reveal ‘unmet’ needs of people. This tendency stems from the urge of businesses to have a sense of control over the marketplace. By quantifying people into clearly defined homogenous segments, they can easily ‘target’ and consequently ‘position’ themselves vis-a-vis their competitors.

The positioning school is without doubt one of the oldest schools of strategy formulation, as the earliest writings easily go back as far as two millennia. Originated in military maxims, it builds on the following premises;

  • Strategies are generic & identifiable positions in the marketplace
  • The marketplace is economic and competitive
  • The strategy-formation process is one of selections
  • Based on analytical calculation, analysts play key role.

Heaps of managers have drawn inspiration from Sun Tzu’s  ‘Art of War’ (400 BC) and Carl Von-Clausewitz (1780-1831) ‘On War’. Basically, these writings dealt with selecting the optimal (& literal) ‘position’ in the context of military battle. An analogy to the marketplace is quickly made.  Exchange ‘battlefield opponents’ with ‘competitors’, ‘battlefield’ with ‘marketplace’ and the land they strive to conquer with ‘customer’s wallet’. And the general strategy-discourse in our businesses mirrors this battlefield metaphor: flanker strategies, offensive strategies, defensive strategies, alliance strategies and war-gaming (a simulative game to predict competitive behaviour in the marketplace).

Battle for your Mind

The next evolution in positioning redefined the battlefield as our minds.  Our brains became the means to reach business targets ($) by influencing our perception, the way we think about organisations and their services or products. Up to this very moment, this thinking still permeates ‘the way we do business’ for the majority of our organisations.

From the abstract to ‘product-geek, client-geek’ transformation
While strategists kept puzzling with freshly distilled abstract numbers and segments from their latest market research reports, businesses came to realize that the abstract once again has drifted them away from the core: their customers.  So the discourse then started to evolve around ‘let’s put our customers back at our core again’ and  ‘we should really to listen to what our customers want’.

The challenge for board directors thus became to create the ‘Customer-Centered Business’. Transforming their employees from ‘introverted product geeks’ into ‘empathic client geeks’.  The answer was found in ‘Customer-centricity’: building a company that centers all of its operational activities around that what matters most: the customer.  You. Me.

What’s that on the pavement?

But if there is one thing that slips and slides this approach from the pavement is the presumption that that we know what we want. Now let’s not be too arrogant, shall we? We don’t know that we don’t know. And it looks like it is going to be like that for another while.

Moreover, all research agencies generally come forward with more or less the same results. Which is perfectly understandable as ‘marketplaces’ and ‘people’ are confined to a small range of variables.  However, these variables do not even come close to doing justice to the richness of reality. The sense-of-control folly lures us in at full force again. ‘There is nothing like the sheer power of numbers to scrub away layers of confusion and contradiction’

On top of that, all competitors use these same models to define their battlefield (Monkey See, Monkey Do), condemning themselves to the status quo and truly generic strategies.  While instead they (we) should be focusing on showing how to take our society a quantum leap forward.

We are attracted to the intent

What we do know is that we are attracted to intent.  It is generally known that we want to belong to something that is bigger than ourselves. That we seek purpose in our lives and fill perceived voids by identifying with organisations, people, music, religion and ideologies.

Our businesses have the inherent opportunity to fill that gap, yet this opportunity also obliges to question our intent:  “Do we want to fill this gap with the intent of distilling as much money from people or do we really want to add to people’s lives and to this society we live in?”. And herein unfolds the 180 degree flip in focus from ‘Customer” to “Intent”. If your intent is pure, if your organisation really wants to add something to people’s lives, change or conserve something in our society, people will follow. And it saves a lot of hassle performing all those market researches.

SOURCES

  • H. Mintzberg, B. Ahlstand, J. Lamel. Strategy Safari: The Complete Guide Through the Wilds of Strategic Management. Pearson Education, 1998.
  • B. Fine, D. Milokanis. From economics imperialism to freakonomics. Routledge, 2009.
  • Al Ries & Jack Trout. Positioning: the Battle for your Mind.  McGrawHill, 1981.