How a Customer-First Culture Elevated Melcrum

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When it comes to getting feedback from customers, Victoria Mellor, CEO and co-founder, Novatum Group and before that Melcrum, does not like most surveys.

"Because whenever I've set that task to people... inevitably what comes out the other side is what I call, 'so what data.' What is that telling me?" she asked in a session at our BIMS conference in November titled Bringing Customers Into Your Marketing, Fulfillment & Product Development. "In our business, the culture was basically, the customer came into everything we did, which was incredibly powerful. I know getting to that point is quite hard—getting people out there comfortable talking to customers. So many of our team liked hiding behind surveys; they're product people."

Mellor helped lead Melcrum for 19 years before it became part of the Corporate Executive Board (now a subsidiary of Gartner). 

"Essentially, we're in the business of problem solving," she continued. "The way we would bring customer need into our product development process is what I call pain and gain. What are the problems we're solving for the customers? 'I want you to forget all the channels and products that you produce and go back to, what are the pain points for your customers? And what gain do they get from you in solving those problems.' It helps [get everyone] thinking about customer need."

Then Mellor alluded to the essence of the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." "[Customers] often cannot articulate what they want," she said. "So [we] would often field questions from customers and would go through a root-cause analysis. 'Why is that important to you?' That might lead to, 'I need data, ROI data.' Being able to challenge that need and get to a clear view of what they're asking for is an important skillset."

Although she dislikes surveys, Mellor did admit that "one of the smartest things" her team did was to do surveys on customer spending habits and priorities. "How big is your budget?" they would ask. "That was a massive revelation to us," she said. "Asking where they're spending money really gives you an insight to that wallet. What are they doing? It doesn't matter if they're not spending money with you right now, but if you can get into their world and understand their priorities and how they can spend that money more easily—with us maybe. That's the sort of mindset you need to get into with customer voice."

Jim Sinkinson of Fired Up! Marketing, also on the panel, gave his go-to questions as well. "You can ask so many questions in 1-on-1 meetings with customers or surveys or focus groups." The questions he found extremely useful are:

  1. What is the biggest problem you face in your job? "That has been revealing for us over the years. Felt that it gave us a lot of insight."
  2. What are you not doing as well as you'd like to be doing? often draws perceptive answers, he said.
  3. What are you working on right now? He said Rick Longenecker, a sales consultant (and fellow SIPA member), taught him that.

Though he did add a caveat: "I'm not sure I trust anything that any given customer tells me. A lot of it is the ability to interpret it and figure out what they're saying."

Mellor said she used to always love going on sales trips with the sales VP. Her three favorites questions on those trips were:  

  1. What are all those binders on your shelf? What are you doing with those things? 
  2. What is on your desk right now? "They won't say what they're working on but will say, 'I'm preparing a presentation for the board,'" Mellor said "It's a good way to get to the bottom of the things they're doing."
  3. If you had $200,000 to spend money on, what would you spend it on? "It reveals their hopes and dreams," she said.

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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…