How I learnt to view research as the front-end to sales

Updated: Mar 31

I learnt marketing the conventional way, research-product-marketing. Research was a discrete activity conducted before product development, most often outsourced, blackbox and it took ages.

This kind of research had a mystique to practicing marketers, who were never let in on the magic. We had to wait. Or more often we started doing, confident we could twist the research to our own ends – our more instinctive view of the customer.

More often than not, this proved just as successful as any research-led product I worked on.

And now I know why. Because research done like this isn’t really getting to know customers, it’s studying them – like they’re consistent, like they always know what they want – and they’ll act like they say they will.

What I’ve come to learn is that research – or customer discovery as it’s known today – is an ongoing relationship activity.

Like husband or wife discovery, it’s not something you do once before the wedding, it’s something you do all the time – partly because the world changes so much, partly because we change so much, and partly because we’re constantly learning about ourselves – and that changes us.

So rather than expect to acquire a snapshot of the customer and base a business around it. Instead, build a relationship with a customer and base a business around that.

Today I see research not only as an ongoing activity, but also as the front-end to sales.

All the time I learn about my customer, not only am I validating my understanding of the customer so I can repeat and scale, but also I am validating whether this customer is a potential buyer. Sometimes I invest in a relationship just for insight, but more usually I hope for insight and acquisition.

And by the way it's the cheapest customer acquisition you'll ever do. It'll just cost you time.

There’s nothing cynical about this. It’s common sense. If I am learning about a customer’s struggle, and believe I can help them overcome it, they’re likely to choose to become a potential buyer. I’m not trying to sell something to someone who has no struggle or isn’t looking for a solution.

I find many clients require a shift in mindset to see customer discovery this way. But it’s really what good sales training and literature have promoted for decades, sales and marketing are about problem solving. The salesman tricking or cajoling naïve customers to part with their money doesn’t deliver sustainable business – not in today’s ultra-transparent world.

So how do we do it?

  1. Start talking to customer’s about their struggles; what keeps them up at night, what is stopping them from making progress?

  2. Asking customers to describe what overcoming struggle would mean – see if they can quantify it, growth, time-saved, talent acquisition, new markets etc

  3. See if they would join your early adoption programme to overcome the struggle together – co-develop a solution.

This isn’t pushy sales – nor is it the kind of academic research that we all enjoy reading, but leaves us wondering what to do next.

Seth Godin always seems to say the right thing:

Marketing is the generous act of helping others become who they seek to become”.

It’s a new way of relationship building, enrolling people who want to make progress and who will pay in time, insight and, if you’re lucky, cash for you to help them.

If you want to talk about how you can make customer discovery part of your culture and the front-end to your customer acquisition, drop me a line at adam@gofamiliarize.com.

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