(I came across this article in my archives. I think the lesson it shares is still highly relevant. So I thought I'd share it again...)
I attended a conference yesterday and had the opportunity to hear Mark Sanborn give the closing keynote. Mark is an internationally acclaimed business speaker on leadership. During his speech, Mark provided a number of techniques for dealing with this new, difficult economy. One story he shared, however, really struck a chord with me.
He relayed the story of how the Denver Zoo had minimized its third highest operating expense: removing and treating the animal waste. Creative minds at the zoo identified its potential value to customers. So they branded it (i.e., Zoop®), packaged it, and started selling it in the Zoo gift store. People flocked to buy exotic animal manure for their gardens and compost piles. The Zoo's creative strategy for minimizing costs had in fact started a small profit-center. They'd found value in "stuff" they'd previously paid someone else to take away!
As I listened to this story, I started thinking about one of my clients who was struggling to re-define his company in this new economy. He had lost most of his customers to foreign suppliers. His firm had been a machine fabrication shop for over 20 years. However, the past few years had been devastating as one after another customer started sourcing overseas.
Harry had tried several things to regain lost clients, but his company kept losing fabrication jobs to lower priced foreign bids. Yet, the customers still called his company, and in particular, him, in to bid jobs. As was typical, they'd show him the production line that would require the new piece of equipment. Harry would then share how a different production layout, with his new machine, could meet and exceed their quality and production needs. However, when they'd review his bid for the fabrication work, they'd award it to a low bidder overseas. Harry's company would be out in the cold again. When we discussed why they kept calling, what questions they were specifically asking him on the phone, and what they specifically asked on-site, I realized they no longer valued his company's fabrication work; they valued Harry’s engineering and concept design skills. He could quickly identify causes for production layout and design problems the customers' internal quality and production engineers couldn't - and THAT was what they wanted from his company. They valued "stuff" he'd previously given away free.
When we changed his company's focus from a fabrication firm that could also design, to a concept engineering and design firm that could also fabricate, the customers started paying for his services as a packaged deal. His customer base started to grow again.
By listening to what his clients really wanted, we were able to refocus his company's services, restructure his marketing efforts, and re-build a customer base.
Listen closely to your customers. What problems are they presenting to you? Why not ask them, "How does my company help you the most? What is most valuable to you when you deal with us?" Their answers may not be what you expect. But they may be the most valuable words you'll ever hear.
Copyright MMII Liz Weber, CMC, CSP - Weber Business Services, LLC.