Stay in Touch With Your Customers

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In analyzing the results from a primary marketing research project I recently conducted for a catalog marketer, there was one customer comment that stood out. When asked an open-ended question about how the catalog marketer could improve, the participant simply responded, "Please stay in touch with your customers."

It sounded too simple, yet the advice is sound.

Considering this customer's response in a broader context, I think it's clear that this kind of advice is often ignored or not completely understood by some catalog marketers until their businesses experience a downturn. It's then that primary marketing research moves to the forefront of a catalog marketer's mind as a way to understand how and why customer attitudes and perceptions have changed. However, managing a business in a reactive mode is an uncomfortable and stressful experience. It consumes additional time and thought at every level and prevents an organization from thinking collectively about how to innovate for the future.

In my experiences with catalog marketers that regularly conduct primary marketing research, I see successful organizations that are operating proactively, and are results-focused. They are industry leaders because they anticipate the future by staying in touch with the changing needs and expectations of their customers.

Many catalog marketers put themselves in a position where they think they need to make a choice between testing and primary research as a means to anticipate customer needs and expectations. The important concept to keep in mind, however, is that both are valuable.

Testing provides a specific and limited interaction with your customers. And it helps evaluate whether customers will respond to certain offers or different creative approaches before making global changes. Variables are tested and the results are typically measured based on a scale using response rates or sales figures as the units of measurement. Testing is also technically a form of research, so it's a valuable part of a catalog marketer's ongoing efforts to analyze and reanalyze historical data.

The limitation of testing is that it does not allow a catalog marketer to gain a perspective of why the test was a success or a failure.

On the other hand, primary marketing research embraces a two-way communication with customers in which perceptions, opinions, motivations and behaviors can be explored and better understood.

Primary research helps catalog marketers tune-in to what customers think about them and why. Information also can be obtained about how customers shop for a product, their experiences when purchasing a product and, ultimately, their satisfaction when using a product.

Your most concerned -- and probably your best customers -- want their opinions to be heard, and they want improvements to be made based on their feedback.

Finding the best way to listen to customers, and having the discipline to listen regularly can provide the actionable information and profound insight necessary to make well-informed marketing decisions. The wide spectrum of ways to exceed customer expectations can be narrowed to the vital few. There are several primary research methods that can be used to listen to your customers.

I recommend implementing two methods on a regular basis that can be done very cost effectively.

The first is to set up a customer panel. A customer panel is an excellent source for the quantitative information needed to measure customer satisfaction with your company, evaluate the qualities of your products and determine if you are providing the expected level of service. Panel members can be recruited from segments of your customer file and asked to participate in research studies during the course of the year. The panel members can be sent questionnaires through the mail, interviewed by phone or contacted online. Customers are usually enthusiastic about participating if there is an incentive involved.

The second method I would recommend is to conduct focus groups. Focus groups enable catalog marketers to obtain qualitative information and to actually come in direct contact with their customers by seeing and hearing them face to face. This is particularly important if you are a catalog marketer who does not have exposure to your customers through a retail operation.

The ability to see your customers and listen to them live can be priceless when trying to understand their needs and expectations. One of the key uses of focus groups is the exploration of different creative approaches that will introduce your customers to a change in your visual positioning.

Some of the most innovative marketing ideas, creative solutions and suggestions for product improvements that move catalog marketers forward have come from customer panels and focus groups. Information from primary research can provide a framework to evaluate a tactical marketing decision in addition to acting as valuable input into a catalog marketer's strategic planning process.

The knowledge obtained from being in constant contact with your customers helps to anticipate their needs and expectations. This in turn creates higher levels of customer satisfaction because you will be doing what is important to customers, the right way, the first time. Customer anticipation is the essence to managing a catalog marketing business proactively. Primary marketing research provides a valuable communication link to the information necessary to anticipate. Narrow the spectrum-use primary research to your benefit.

In other words: Please stay in touch with your customers.

Jason Hornik is the marketing services specialist at AGA Catalog Marketing & Design, a full-service direct marketing and design agency with offices in New York and London.

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