By Bill Pollock
Acquiring and mastering customer and industry information should be a core competency for field service organizations. The success of these organizations rests primarily on their track record and their ability to "sell" new service concepts to distributors and customers, using sound data from a variety of credible sources.
To be successful, services organizations need to implement comprehensive and efficient processes for utilizing customer and industry information. Specific strategies need to be developed for acquiring and managing customer information, research resources, and Web-based information services. Successful services organizations will also be counted on to develop specific strategies for tapping into each of these sources in an effective and efficient manner.
There are three major categories of information for which services organizations need to efficiently manage their respective service portfolios:
- Harnessing Customer Information
- Grasping Market Trends
- Tracking Industry Leaders
Harnessing Customer Information
Each company, by the nature of the products and services it sells, as well as its channels of distribution, has a very specific customer set. No amount of industry research can substitute for the knowledge gained by dealing interactively with your customers. Only in this way, can you be assured that your service offerings are in tune with your customers' needs.
Participation in the sales process is an excellent means for staying in touch with customer needs, requirements, preferences and expectations. Services organizations that do not proactively engage with customers at some level with respect to cross-selling and upselling end up “wasting” an enormous amount of information; not to mention the goodwill of the services sales force. In an ideal model, services organizations should have regional or channel-specific marketing representatives whose role is to support the services sales process. There should also be some built-in processes for field technicians to, at the very least, build a foundation for selling specific components of the services portfolio to the customers they regularly support. As such, these individuals should ultimately become a vital source of input into the overall services portfolio development (and marketing) process.
Secondly, services organizations should have a process in place whereby they can query front-line service personnel who actually come into direct contact with customers on a near-daily basis. Today, an enormous amount of information about customer wants and needs is being lost because there is no venue by which field service and tech support personnel can channel this information routinely to services marketing. To put it bluntly, in too many cases, nobody is asking them for their input.
Third, services organizations need to push aggressively to make sure the information they require is being captured in the call tracking and Field Service Management (FSM) solutions used by their organizations. They should also have been involved in the process of promoting these solutions, and should lobby to ensure that the information logged in these systems will be comprehensive enough to be useful for future analytical purposes.
Finally, services organizations should put in place a regular means for soliciting customer feedback on wants and needs, etc. For example, many organizations carry out follow-up calls to check on customer satisfaction after a service case is closed. Rarely do these calls ask the question: "What other services do you need that we are currently not providing?"
Grasping Market Trends
On face value, understanding larger market trends and forces can be accomplished by subscribing to well-known market research sources. Research firms such as Gartner, Forrester, IDC and many others provide periodic market trends and analysis studies based on interviews with large numbers of customers.
While these reports are extremely valuable, especially when developing long-term plans, they need to be scrutinized and cross-checked. Research performed by large industry firms can sometimes be too broad to serve as a predictor for any given sub-market. For example, research statistics on the overall growth of the IT services market may or may not be granular enough to help predict how demand for services will fare in an emerging market such as pest control services. It is often necessary to engage specialized research firms (like Strategies For Growth℠) to conduct research in specific niche markets. When done routinely, this type of research can be tailored to produce the desired data without breaking the budget.
One of the common pitfalls services organizations fall into is subscribing to a single service for all of their research needs. Because of funding limitations or simply due to lack of awareness, these organizations will most likely not be exposed to research conducted by other firms. In order to remain effective, services marketing organizations should adopt a three-pronged approach with regard to available research offerings:
- Subscribe to one service as a primary research source, assuming one can be found that focuses sufficiently on your company's relevant marketplace. If not, you may also need to retain an independent firm that specializes in custom market research.
- Purchase a small number of selected studies from other research firms on an "a la carte" basis when they address specific areas of high interest (although this approach my ultimately become too expensive to sustain). Alternatively, commission a boutique research analyst firm to investigate niche areas of high interest.
- Keep tabs of the findings of yet other research and analysis organizations by gleaning high level summaries and commentary which appear on the Web, or in the trade press.
Tracking Industry Leaders
A smooth-running services organization develops efficient processes for scanning industry events, news and reports. There are several approaches to this task, including:
- Having individual service marketing staff read industry periodicals, Blogs and posts. However, this approach tends to be the least effective simply because service management is generally extremely time-constrained and cannot justify spending its time leafing through trade journals et al. For example, in the IT industry alone, there are dozens of trade journals that report on service and support issues.
- Traditional clipping services have been used as a source for staying on top of industry announcements and competitive moves. However, these services typically deliver too much "paper" and not enough filtering. And they may often be irrelevant or outdated. As a result, gleaning through clippings has become an esoteric task generally relegated to the corporate Public Relations (PR) department.
The most promising approach appears – at least in principle – to be Web-based information delivery services. The Internet has made it possible for services management to receive targeted industry information “pushed” to them practically in virtual "real time." Every day, there may be hundreds of relevant posts that can be filtered, screened and pushed out to the organization’s designated parties.
In order to be successful, services organizations need to take the lead in acquiring and distributing relevant information to interested parties. They also need to be able to develop a strategy, processes and a budget for acquiring these critical types of information.
The result should be a custom mix of relevant information streaming inbound on a continuous basis from a variety of sources, ultimately in support of the organization’s field, sales, marketing, manufacturing and services teams.