Solving The Big “If”

 The “Big If” is what we call the dilemma some of our clients — especially those that are Accidental Marketers — face at the end of our strategy sessions:   “We are excited about the potential of this strategy, “ they say, “IF we were right about the customer needs our plan addresses.”

In the absence of a market research budget and enough time to do a study, how do you know if you have an accurate picture of what your customers really need?

One answer – inviting customers to participate in your strategy meetings – seems straightforward to us. But the doubts clients have about this practice are genuine. Below we address the three reasons we hear for not inviting customers to your strategy sessions, along with rebuttals for each reason.

Reason #1 (and Rebuttal): “Customers Won’t Come Even If We Invite Them” (AKA “What’s In It For Them?”)

In our experience, customers are eager to share what they want with their suppliers because it could result in a better value proposition for them. A basic rule of psychology is that everyone’s favorite subject is themself!

A plane ticket to your session, a couple of nights in a comfortable hotel, a nice meal or two are just icing on the cake. As we’ve seen time and again, customers universally appreciate the opportunity to provide direct input into how you can solve their problems. (Even in rural Vietnam. But that’s the subject of another post!)

Reason #2 (and Rebuttal): “They’ll Learn That We ‘Aren’t That Good’”

A recent study found that people who participate in the creation of an object ascribe more value to the object than uninvolved observers. We’ve noticed something similar: customers invited to strategy sessions seem to bond with their hosts. They share their thoughts honestly, but with the purpose of helping figure out solutions that they will eventually benefit from.

At the end, they express genuine gratitude and excitement for what’s coming. And the presence of customers puts your other cross-functional session participants on their best, cooperative behavior. The customers see your organization as open, functional, interested in them, willing to take chances. This is the opposite of reason #2 above!

Reason #3 (and Rebuttal): “They Will Learn Our Trade Secrets!”

This is a legitimate concern, especially if you are about to release a groundbreaking new product or service. But the solution is simple: dismiss your customer-guests before talking about the specifics of your new solution and strategy.

The customer participation part of the session can be focused on fully and completely understanding their needs. Ultimately, this will allow you to appropriately position and value-sell your new innovation when you talk about strategy specifics later in the meeting.

All you need to do is appropriately set the customer’s expectations about their role. Choreograph the session so you get what you need from them, and then dismiss them, as planned and communicated ahead of time. One option: schedule a half-day customer input session immediately prior to the start of your internal strategy session, as some of our clients do routinely.

In Our Opinion, It’s a Secret to Creating Successful Strategy

We’ve learned some approaches for getting the most value from this best practice of inviting customers in. Topics such as what to say to appropriately set their expectations, how to prepare to maximize their time at the session, even when to ask them to leave (e.g., earlier in “War-Gaming” types of sessions than at traditional strategy planning meetings) are a little too detailed for a short post. Contact us if you would like to hear more about these specifics.

Consistently, we see a higher level of confidence and alignment around plans when customers are involved in the strategy-making process. This confidence inevitably translates into the plan’s successful execution.

Ultimately, inviting customers to your strategy session is brave; done right it is low-risk; and in our experience, it is a great idea that can eliminate the “Big If.”

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