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How to find out what your prospects really want

When it comes to targeting the buyers for an industrial or business product, you might have a tough time.

First off, you don’t have the same sort of demographic research that packaged goods marketers have available.

And many small companies are run by driven entrepreneurs, who have used great instinct and insight to start the company, but often try and fit reality to their dream, instead of the other way around.

Even if you can find the facts and figures to help profile your buyer, that’s just the beginning.

The secret to finding out what your prospects want doesn’t lie in a bunch of statistics, nor necessarily in the founding father’s instinctive perception of the market for your product. It lies in legwork and phone calls and a real ability to listen and understand. Then you can apply the instinct and intuition you and others may have.

First, you want to map out the decision making process in buying your product, including everyone involved, from the initiator to the end user. You want to know where the final decision rests, but also who has influence. You can begin to determine this by talking to your own salespeople, and as you get deeper into your research, you may find new insights.

Depending on your market segmentation, this process will vary among industries, and even among companies. But by determining every potential person involved, you know who to approach for your research… and the resulting advertising will jolt them with its depth of insight.

Once you’ve mapped this buying process, talk to everyone. This is more than a valuable learning experience; it sets the stage for future marketing, and lets your prospects and clients know you’re really interested in what they want.

While features and benefits are important in marketing and advertising, they won’t influence a decision on their own. Often, the decision is made at a deeper emotional and psychological level, and the benefits provide rational justification for a buyer’s decision more than they influence it.

This suggests it’s even more important to immerse yourself in the culture of your market, and learn as much as you can about your customers’ feelings, hopes, fears and desires. It also makes a good case for the importance of emotion and image in your advertising.

Trade or professional associations

Join the same trade associations as your customers. But don’t just do it so you can use the logo in your advertising or nab a mailing list. Attend meetings, listen to what’s said, and learn. Read the association newsletter, and discover industry concerns through any lobbying action they undertake.

By attending the various associations within your different markets, you can isolate pain points and concerns specific to different industries, and to the type of company you’re targetting (distributor, end-user, VAR, OEM).

Read industry publications, too. Don’t just subscribe. Read them cover to cover. Read the editorials, the letters to the editor and the features. By talking to your customers, you can find out which of these publications carries the most weight. Then talk to the editors of these more influential periodicals to gain more insight.

Sales people

These are your front-line people, in daily contact with your customers. Their experience and knowledge of the buyer is invaluable. Take advantage of it.

Sales people should meet regularly with marketing executives, as well as their sales managers. Ask for their advice. And act on the advice whenever you can, letting them know when you have. Why? Because the advice is usually good. Because it’s satisfying and motivating to know your input and ideas have helped. And because they won’t keep offering information if it’s never used.

Trade shows

Trade shows are perfect opportunities to meet one on one with your customers for an informal chat. But these conversations can be intimidating, and you might not always get honest answers. Provide a form with your business card attached, asking your prospects to jot down any questions, concerns or comments they may have and return it to you later. This way, you’ve planted the seed to get their ideas flowing, and you’ve made it easy for them to respond with relative (or complete) anonymity.

It’s worthwhile to put some leading points or questions on there — not the standard market research questions, like “Where did you find out about our product?” but questions designed to find out their impression of the competition, and what magazines they really read.

While you’re there, check out your competitors, especially the leading companies. Eavesdrop on a sales pitch, or go undercover as a customer, to find out how they push the product. Pick up all their literature, and study it later, comparing leading companies with less successful ones.

Seminars

Seminars provided free to your customers and prospects have long been recognized as effective marketing tools. But they can do a lot more for you.

As well as letting your prospects know about your product or service under the guise of education, seminars can help you get to know your prospects. Even something as simple as a question and answer session is loaded with insight into their concerns and desires. But you can take this further by soliciting comments or holding workshops on, for example, how to improve the order taking process, in which your customers play the role of your company.

Have your design people, sales people, and customer service people on hand when you meet with clients. They’ll remember different things, discover different nuggets of information, and offer different perspectives. And when they present the information to their staffs, it’s from the heart, rather than a dry reading of a report.

Sales people can also help evaluate clients’ answers with their perspectives and impressions from actual sales calls. One side effect of having these people on hand is involved customers. When they see how their opinions are actually being heard and answered by the design and service people, they feel they’re doing more than supplying material a marketing person will use to manipulate them.

Prepare questions of your own, and have other people from your company ask a few. Get specific about your product’s features and benefits by leading the discussion along these lines. But try not to sound like you’re reading from a script. Encourage criticism. Take notes or record the session. Talk about “we” (all of us), rather than “us and you”.

A couple rules: during this part of the session, no defensiveness, explanations, excuses or selling allowed. Call up your customers after the initial meeting, in case they’ve had a new idea, or held something back in the initial meeting. The phone provides a little more anonymity, and people are more likely to speak their minds.

Finally, you should apply these techniques continually, not just once in a blue moon. And you should act on the information you get. If people show concerns, respond.

These are just a few starters. As you totally immerse yourself in the culture of your buyer, you’ll pick up new insight into what you can do to provide them with the product and service they want, and what you can do to promote it.

 
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