How to Shape Customer Perceptions
The in-plant customer can be an enigma—aware of the in-plant's existence while at the same time ignoring it entirely. More times than not, this attitude is born of perceptions that are usually inaccurate.
The May 2013 IPG article "A New Strategy in Minnesota" reveals how the University of Minnesota dealt with this situation. The operation came to the realization that an in-plant must do the same things all small businesses do: establish a brand, a reputation and a marketing plan to entice customers to think of the in-plant as the supplier of choice. In short, the in-plant's management team acknowledged that they needed to change their operation and alter customer perceptions.
While the in-plant may have the tools and skills to maintain relevance, the customer may disagree—not necessarily due to lack of skills and tools, but because of the customer's perception of issues the in-plant may not be aware of. In other words, how does an in-plant use internal marketing to mold the perception that will increase sales?
An internal marketing effort to change customer perception requires a strategy and tools employing the following three steps:
- External Assessment
- Internal Assessment
Determining who is a good prospect is a critical ingredient to a successful marketing effort. It first begins with an assessment of current customers/prospects, what their needs are and how well they are being met.
Typically, in the in-plant environment, there are two categories: saints and sinners. Those who use the in-plant are the saints and those who do not are...well, you know. While this classification is humorous, it is necessary to know why those two groups exist. Plus, an assessment of the current customers/prospects will determine what growth potential is available and where you have been successful.
The individual who is changing and looking for new solutions is the ideal prospect. She/he wants innovation and solutions in the form of products, which gives the in-plant the opportunity to broaden its offerings and sales avenues. While current products may be in demand, new products coupled with value-added attributes can be explored with this type of customer. CRM, PURLS, QR codes, Web-to-print and print-to-Web are examples.
After you have identified your customers and prospects, one-on-one interviews should be performed with both. Reviewing the in-plant's position in the customer's plans may help clarify what problems exist or what shortcomings are perceived. A focus on the customer's perceptions of your competitive advantage, reputation, technical competence and capabilities will provide valuable insight.
Many times purchasing influencers are focused primarily on competitive advantage to the exclusion of mission critical considerations. While cost is important, watch for these added value capabilities that you provide and use them to decouple cost-to-outsource comparisons by stressing your value in other terms, rather than comparative benchmarking.
The interview can also be used as an opportunity to discuss what the prospect requires to make his/her job successful. This isn't the time to offer solutions or products, but a fact-finding discussion to help in determining if aligning with the prospect is an advantage or a distraction. The discussion should revolve around what is being planned in six months or a year out. The takeaway is to allow you to prepare solutions for the prospect on a proactive basis and, if necessary, rebrand or repair your reputation.
After conducting a number of interviews with prospects and customers, it is time to do an initial self-assessment. This assessment sets the stage for how the in-plant can align with the customers or prospects who offer the most potential for growth.
A major piece of the assessment is what avenues of change are open and valuable to pursue. These changes may include new services, updated capabilities in existing services, rebuilding your image via re-branding or other techniques to remedy incorrect perceptions of your in-plant. In the case of new services where the growth opportunity may not be part of the existing expertise of the in-plant, the solution may require new/improved skills, or different personnel or hardware. The in-plant must determine if it can rise to the level of competence that will garner new business and enhance its positive reputation.
If solutions for the needs described by customers already exist, this is the time to decide how best to make the in-plant's community of customers aware of its existing capabilities. Armed with a better perspective of the customer and the prospect, a marketing program must be developed that delivers the message that the in-plant is innovative, responsive, valuable and addresses those needs.
Often, even with the solution in hand, the internal resource is suspect and frequently not accepted as the best alternative. Here is where the marketing and sales effort must consistently be presented to show how the in-plant is the ideal provider for the customers' needs and trust.
After addressing the issues in the self-assessment, the in-plant will need to re-brand via a focused communication effort. This could include:
- Events such as open houses, educational lunches and in-service training. Community events have the advantage of interaction between the print shop staff and the customer while emphasizing competence and capabilities. The environment should be invigorating, inviting and collegial.
- Collateral materials, such as capabilities brochures and new employee information. These should highlight customer solutions and meeting needs rather than equipment and products.
- Electronic promotions, such as Web, e-mail, social media, forums/message boards, blogs and online design libraries. These should feature professional design and ease of use.
Lets us be clear: we are choosing to shape perceptions to get a desired response. To do so requires awareness, reinforcement, repetition and consistency, all built on a trusting relationship.
Related story: Change and Thrive