Just Ask: Voice of the Market Conversations Amplify Understanding of Customer Needs

Author: 
Ron Carson

Just about every marketer today has been told to listen to the voice of the customer to inform marketing strategy. There are two problems with this. First, marketing teams only receive this information second-hand – through sales, product management, etc. Second, if you only talk to customers, you are only speaking to people who already drink your Kool-Aid. Your existing customers may not get you to your next customers. These dynamics can leave marketers with an incomplete picture of prevailing market conditions and the challenges facing potential buyers. And it is why I encourage marketers to have regular “voice of the market” conversations.

The voice of the market (VOM) is an expanded view that goes beyond gleaning information solely from customers. It goes beyond the friendly, but unfortunately biased, conversations marketers may have for the purposes of customer case studies or testimonials. (Those people are already fans). Instead, it’s a conversation with people outside the immediate bubble of the organization. This includes prospects and people who aren’t in a buying cycle for your product but who may share common attributes with your customer base. VOM involves active listening to gain a more complete picture of broader market issues, brand perception and why potential customers did or didn’t choose your products. 

If you really want to learn how to market and sell to someone, you have to ask them. They will tell you because people inherently want to share their opinions. They want to be heard. And it works especially when you’re listening, engaging and not selling.

Let the Voice of the Market Speak

Here are five tried and true VOM best practices.

Step away from the groupthink. Every organization has pre-conceptions about what customers want, what they buy and why they buy it. They may not be wrong, but they also may not be completely right.  Abandon what the organization “knows” while you do your VOM research. Let the market tell you.

Be professionally persistent. At first, the people you reach out to will be skeptical. After all, there’s usually a pitch associated with these kinds of conversations. It could take multiple attempts by email and voicemail before you get a response. However, don’t get discouraged - remain professional and it will pay off. Once people realize that your inquiry is legitimate, they’ll get back to you and offer apologies for not responding. At that point, you’re no longer cold-calling; it’s warm and they know what you want to talk about.

Don’t sell. From the outset be clear that there won’t be a sales pitch involved, and stick to it; otherwise you compromise your credibility. By removing the pressure of a sales pitch, you can ask all the things you’d want to know in a sales situation, such as their reaction to pricing, buying objections and pain points. And even if it feels like they could be a potential buyer? Leave it alone. If they have interest, they will ask you for a sales introduction.

Listen for common themes. After some initial conversations, you’ll notice common themes emerging. Some will relate to your research questions, while others will be completely unexpected. Either way, take note – these are the areas where you’ll want to dig deeper. You may hear about the perception of your brand or the reputation of your product. Or you may get ideas for product direction or for the focus of future marketing campaigns. Everything you glean from these conversations will make the marketing team more knowledgeable.

Keep it conversational. Don’t try to impose too much structure on your conversations – this isn’t a survey. Keep questions open-ended and don’t be afraid to pursue tangents as they arise. You’re not collecting quantitative data - your goal is to find out what’s on their mind when it comes to the market, so you don’t want to push in any given direction.

What Outcomes Can You Expect?

From these conversations, you’ll learn what buyers are looking for and areas of immediate concern. As an ongoing activity, this exercise will allow you to continuously hone your messages, provide relevant content and validate marketing strategies.

When embarking on this activity pre-COVID as the new CMO at Terra Dotta, diversity and environmental responsibility were recurring themes at higher ed institutions. As the pandemic emerged, we discovered that schools wanted information about the virus and how it would affect them. We were able to partner with knowledgeable sources and quickly present a webcast on what the pandemic would mean for higher education. It drew hundreds of attendees and far exceeded attendance for previous programs. Importantly, we adapted our content strategy to meet the market need but not be self-serving. We weren’t shamelessly selling – we were listening to the market and responding accordingly. As an added benefit, it elevated our brand.

Constantly Refresh Your Knowledge of the Market

Almost every organization suffers from some degree of groupthink. Candid conversations with external audiences can shine a light on market blind spots. The insights gleaned will also elevate and solidify marketing as a strategic contributor to the business. Instead of being the tactical and logistical arm of sales, tasked with planning trade shows and creating collateral, use VOM to empower your organizations to identify and meet the ever-evolving demands of today’s customers.

Ron Carson is a 25-year marketing and communications veteran, working inside and outside of the tech bubble. Currently he is chief marketing officer for Terra Dotta, the leader in higher education travel, study abroad and international program management solutions. He also is founder of Thirdside, a boutique market intelligence agency.