Seeking Out the 'Voice of the Customer'

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"I tell everybody that works for me that I'd rather have them try and fail than not try. And that I want them to make a decision. We can fix a bad decision; we can't fix a no-decision. No one will ever get fired for trying something new or for failing at something they tried to do. I reward people who try, people who think outside the box. I am doing everything I can to empower my team all the way down the chain to say, 'Look, this is what we need to do for the customer.'"

That quote came from a recent interview I did with Rajeev Kapur, CEO of 1105 Media and a keynote speaker at SIIA's upcoming Business Information & Media Summit (BIMS), Nov. 14-16 in Fort Lauderdale. Throughout the interview, Kapur brings everything back to the customer.

On data, he said: "The challenge is going to be that there's so much data out in the marketplace, CEOs and management teams are going to suffer real-world, analysis paralysis... How do you understand the trends properly? Data is important but if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. You also can't forget the voice of the customer. So yes data analysis is real hot, but if you don't know how to use it, it will cripple your business."

On office culture, he said: "At 1105 we focus a ton on the culture and getting the best out of people—while asking, 'How do we look at this from the voice of the customer?'"

At a time when becoming part of your customer's work flow is a constant goal, are we spending enough time talking to, surveying and visiting with them? I still recall Jim Sinkinson writing about the success he had with a new seminar on PR Agency Growth and Profit. He interviewed 15 PR agency presidents "one-on-one"—before designing the seminar—to identify their top needs. He used every platform to reach out—personalized direct mail and email, videos, white papers and social media.

Beyond that, he surveyed (through SurveyMonkey) thousands of agency presidents about their attitudes and concerns about agency management. This uncovered some surprising market needs and issues. "Though we have served this market for three decades, we decided to be good marketers and approach the challenge with 'an empty head'—as though we knew nothing about PR agency owners," Sinkinson said.

So here we have two leaders with years of experience not accepting any hearsay. Make that three. "When was the last time you sat opposite a prospect and listened to their objections?" asked Robin Crumby, founder of Melcrum and now Novatum Group. "When you come to make recommendations about changes, it's so powerful to be able to quote customers. If it originates with the customer, it has so much more power."

Kapur noted that "the idea of listening to the customer is not new. What's new is that tech is making that easier. One takeaway is that if you don't embrace [the kind of] tech that puts you closer to the customer—like virtual learning, more digital, more social—you could miss out on the millennials. Live events will become even more important because they will provide a place for the next generation to meet. Instead of going to a classroom and learning something, they'll do that virtually, and then congregate at an event."

Even at our events, where it should be easy, are we taking the time to talk with our customers, members and subscribers? I remain a believer in handing out printed evaluation forms after every session, instead of simply waiting for an all-encompassing digital survey after the event. Why not? If there's a chance to learn, then we need to grab it—no time like the present.

"Every once in a while companies have to reinvent themselves," said Kapur. "Obviously, the smaller you are the more nimble you can be. I have a philosophy that in order to do this—to focus and lift the business—you need a strategy. And you have to have a culture that can support that strategy. Then it's about execution and focus."

And asking. And listening.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…