Deep customer understanding is based on a deep customer-supplier relationship
Sustainability and long-term partnerships are core issues in the operations of most industrial suppliers. Since large sums of money are often involved when customers invest in new production machinery or an entire factory, and the sales process may last up to one to two years, the company has to pay a lot of attention to its customers. There is always a chance and often also a need to improve customer focus in business to business (B2B) activities. Dr. Craig S. Fleisher, the leading scholar and productive author in the fields of business analysis and intelligence as well as corporate public affairs, says that understanding customers in a B2B context requires similar kinds of research to what is done in B2C (business to consumer) contexts. “It still usually lacks the breadth of data to generate large samples and statistical significance. As such, B2B contexts are better suited to the application of business or competitive intelligence (BI/CI) methods or concepts taught in traditional business schools than some of the traditional customer/market intelligence,” Fleisher says.
Business intelligence assists in listening to customers
Business intelligence is a collection of methodologies, processes, architectures, and technologies to transform raw data into meaningful and useful information which can help any company identify and develop new business and other opportunities. The term “business intelligence” is more common in Europe than in North America, where the same approach is called "competitive intelligence". “BI/CI methods are typically more qualitative in nature, use more purposeful, but smaller samples, and are well-suited to understanding complex, existing customers, competitors, or other targeted stakeholders,” Fleisher says. Craig Fleisher is a former MBA director, business school dean, and endowed university research chair holder as well as a present or former member of university faculties in eight countries. Currently, he serves in a graduate faculty role at the Tampere University of Technology in Finland. As a scholar, he has discovered a number of ways in which industrial suppliers can listen to their customers – although “listening” is actually one of the most difficult activities for companies to do. “The first way is to put their own people in the shoes of their customers and walk like the customer walks. This can be done through BI/CI methods, which are in fact similar to what opposition parties do to better understand the party in power in a parliamentary context, war games, and other simulations,” Fleisher says. “The company can also strive to ensure that numerous points of interaction and engagement are established, and that each of these 'touch points' provides regular input about the customer back into the company’s intelligence or knowledge clearinghouses.” “The third idea is doing ongoing research and profiling important customers, both current and prospective. It includes tracking and learning about developments of key executives, monitoring social media, and ethically learning from former employees about the customers’ context and ways,” Fleisher says.
A global leader must understand different cultures and circumstances
Bearing in mind that for many industrial suppliers, customers are from different cultures and circumstances, Craig Fleisher points out that customer focus is far more difficult in a cross-cultural contexts than it is in single cultural or even regional geographic contexts. “Many companies make the mistake of trying to learn these customers’ cultures from a distance, thinking they can understand them by only using open, secondary, 3W-based sources, and translating data or information coming in from these channels in a foreign language into their own,” he remarks. “This is very ineffective – translation does not guarantee equal understanding, particularly when that understanding could be the difference between winning and keeping a customer and losing one.” “Having 'on the ground' executives who are already familiar with the customers’ culture and preferably already reside there, having some key employees (or third party consultancies) paying regular visits to the customers’ locations, and utilizing your own employees, who have close familiarity with the customers, and are regularly feeding updates from all of these sources into your knowledge/intelligence network apparatus, are all of utmost importance in developing an enriched understanding,” Fleisher summarizes.
Decision makers need relevant customer-focused information
Business intelligence can be used in a familiar or in a hostile way. The latter can give good results but it is not recommended. The first one is good enough to make a difference between competitors in both an ethical and a legal way. “The key is to develop robust structures and processes to allow for the ready flow of customer-focused information to those decision makers and planners who have to make decisions about how the company will position itself relative to these customers.” Craig Fleisher emphasizes that business intelligence is all about trying to develop an asymmetric interpretation of how a company can serve customers profitably and better than any rivals who may also seek their business. “Many companies who do this well realize that business intelligence methods, done ethically, skillfully, and woven into the companies’ information centers, can be leverage in better serving customers in competitive markets.”
Dedicated human relational resources still play an important role
According to Fleisher, customer focus trends are on the move worldwide. Companies are getting to know their customers at more micro-levels of activity. This occurs primarily because of technology, tracking behavior, and the transparency of activities and relationships that can be captured, measured and analyzed via digital transactions. “Companies are also doing 'customer understanding' 24 hours a day, have constant multi-way tracking going on via web relationships, and can analyze relationships among great quantities of captured data faster than ever before.” On the other hand, Fleisher wants companies to keep in mind that there still cannot be full understanding of customers until we also know them better through non-digital relationships as well. “Deep customer understanding nearly always comes from deep, customer-supplier relationships. These require the same care, focus and dedication of human, temporal and relational resources today that they did decades ago, and some companies do it far better on a day-to-day basis than others,” he says.
There is no magic formula to achieving better customer insight
Generating better customer insight is a continuing process that responds to improvement, measurement, and better management. “The B2B companies who get it right will also be the ones who get the most customer wins,” Fleisher assures. “There is no magic formula, magic software, or even magic database to do this with, but there are still well-documented activities and demonstrated processes that can help companies to do it better than their rivals.” “It ultimately requires a dedicated investment of resources, including things like executive champions, training and development, using human networks, technology, and managerial savvy.” Dr. Craig S. Fleisher received his PhD in Business from the Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh. Since then he has been, for example, an MBA director, Dean of the Business School at the College of Coastal Georgia, and Professor of Strategy at the Odette School of Business, University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Currently he serves in graduate faculty roles at Universita della Svizzera italiana in Switzerland and Tampere University of Technology in Finland.