Pulp Innovation Chapter LXXV: Who is the Customer?

While forming a plan of action for a business to business firm, Marlowe faces the dilemma of figuring out who is the nominal customer. Do they take for granted that their intermediate customers know their markets, and respond to their needs, or do they reach out and understand the end consumers’ needs?

We were fortunate that the Screaming Eagles (that was the name we came up with for the aerospace innovation team) were able to get a meeting with George to request funding for resources and some expenditures. In my experience, trying to get a meeting with a senior executive when you come hat in hand asking for funds is an exercise quite similar to attempting to enter a walled city in the middle ages when you’ve got the plague. Brockwell, at least to date, had demonstrated his willingness to support us, not only verbally, but also with the green stuff, and we’d come to the portion of the project where we’d need some of the green stuff.

Meredith and Sally had kibitzed for several days, and devised an interesting plan to gain more insights into Accipiter Aerospace customers. As you may have guessed by now, Accipiter wasn’t exactly in the business to consumer space, so that made understanding customer needs a bit more complex. An important question kept arising: who is Accipiter’s customer? Aerospace firms and aircraft manufacturers, who were the nominal customers? Or end consumers, like the airlines that bought the commercial plans and the militaries that purchased the fighters and bombers that incorporated Accipiter Aerospace technologies? Did the aircraft manufacturers and aerospace firms have a good understanding about the unfolding future needs and opportunities, or did it make sense for Accipiter to explore its customers’ customer? Business to business firms face this dilemma all the time. Do we take for granted that our intermediate customers know their markets, and respond to their needs, or do we reach out and understand the end consumers’ needs? What Sally and Meredith decided to do was a bit of both.

Their plan called for site visits to aircraft manufacturers who were customers of Accipiter, and to several who weren’t, and a similar plan for the aerospace industry where we could get feedback. Also, we decided to reach out to the major airlines and seek site visits to their maintenance hubs, where we could learn first hand about the needs that the maintenance people faced, and what their needs and “wish lists” would entail. While this approach wasn’t true “ethnography”, it was the best we were likely to get and solved a couple of needs. We were going to ask to film the meetings where that would be allowed, so we’d have a written record and a video record of the discussions, which again would make the experience and learnings more like ethnography.

I couldn’t add much to the plan, but I could grease the skids to get our Screaming Eagles team in front of Brockwell, so that was my part in the work. Brockwell agreed to meet with us, but before we could meet with him we needed to discuss the costs for the research, and any other costs we thought we’d incur beyond our services and the human resources costs of the folks provided by Brockwell and Flynn. Nobody has ever called me a genius, but I’m smart enough to know that while it’s painful to open the wallet, management only wants to do it once. Going back for more money before we had a good solution wasn’t going to be well received. So Meredith, Sally, Gregg and I met a few days before our meeting with Brockwell, to layout the presentation and ensure our cost estimates were tight.

Gregg knew the “Accipiter” way for presentations, so he lead off the meeting.

“Brockwell likes all the “asks” up front, so have an executive summary with a couple of slides that detail exactly what you are asking for. Then, have the detail ready to support the “asks”. It’s possible he may simply agree to what we ask without seeing the details, but we should be ready to present them. Don’t make the slides too busy. He likes them clean and simple. No pictures or graphics unless they are absolutely necessary.”

“OK. Meredith and Sally, we need maybe two slides on the rationale for the research, what we expect to gain from it, and the anticipated costs. Clearly the costs must be placed up front. Then we need to think about any other costs we may incur, and incorporate all of those costs so we only have to go to George once.”

Gregg looked puzzled.

“What other costs or expenditures could possibly be necessary?”

Meredith and I looked at each other, grinned, and she nodded at me.

“Well, for starters” I said “we might need to purchase some market research to support our findings. In the past we’ve had to support findings based on our research, because the executive team wanted a respected third party stamp on the work. Next, we might need to purchase materials or time to create a reasonable prototype of our ideas. That could come from within Accipiter, or perhaps we go outside. Third, we’ll probably want a market research firm to help us test the validity and uptake of the new idea once we are ready to start piloting it externally. These are just three categories of expenditures that are likely. Of course there could be others, but we should plan for these.”

Gregg took that feedback a lot better than I thought he would, probably because the dollars were coming from Brockwell and not from Gregg’s budget, except for the people.

“Do you have any examples of budgets from other similar projects, so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel?”

“There are only three reasons to hire a consultant” I said “first, to have someone to blame when the project goes bad.”

He smiled. His smile simply acknowledged something that we consultants know, that our clients think we don’t know. That is, we walk in with a target on our chests and leave with a target on our backs. If a project is successful, the client gets the benefits and the acclaim. If the project isn’t successful, well, it’s not only the pioneers who are full of arrows.

“Second, in the hopes that they actually have some interesting insights or capabilities that augment your team.”

“And third” he said “so that I can reuse all the learning, tools and documentation from their prior clients’ experience.”

“Well, in somewhat abstracted form. We prefer to call it a methodology.”

“OK then, get your methodology on over here and let’s draft this PowerPoint.”

By Jeffrey Phillips

About the author:


Jeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project. Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities.

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