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Marchand--Focus In, Listen Up!

June 1998
Is it important to listen to customers? I have yet to meet the sales and marketing executive who does not think so. Why, then, do so few printing companies create effective venues for learning about their customers' concerns and expectations?

Discussions that take place during the routine conduct of business provide essential information. But these exchanges are not what I have in mind.

The often painful sessions that take place when a printing company has made a grievous mistake can be instructive, to say the least, but seldom offer much insight about a customer's organization.

Sales managers intermittently accompany sales reps on visits to their companies' major accounts—but not many. A smaller number of printing companies expect senior executives to meet occasionally with customers. Important as it is to expose senior executives and customers to one another, these meetings do not enable printing companies to discover where customers are headed in their use of printing services.

The kind of listening and learning that printing companies need in a fast-changing environment can only be conducted when there are no immediate objectives—or, more correctly stated, when listening and learning are the only objectives.

Learning From Customers
There are many ways to learn about customers' immediate and projected concerns. Satisfaction studies are one. Questionnaires and mailed surveys both provide valuable information about a range of topics.

However, all of these vehicles are shaped and restricted by the questions asked. As a result, they limit the opportunity for the surprising discovery that is so often invaluable. This kind of information is best uncovered in live exchanges among customers guided by an experienced facilitator. It is this outcome that makes the focus group particularly valuable for printing companies.

The sessions are simple to set up, easy to conduct, and have multiple uses. They provide essential information for the making of major decisions. Here are six examples.

1) New Technology
During a focus group, if the head of print production for a major entertainment company (an organization with an annual print budget in the tens of millions) were to make the case for bringing e-mail to the desk of every printing company employee with customer contact, would your CEO be more likely to authorize this essential tool for job communications? No? Well, then how about if the same guy said that as of Jan. 1, his company would no longer work with printers that would not work with his staff via e-mail?



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