Figuring out customer needs

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One year ago, people were looking for financial stability in companies they were purchasing from because of all of the business closings. But now, on-time delivery outranks that because so many businesses cut back their inventory during the worst of the recession. With demand increasing, customers have more difficulty getting what they want on time.” –Jaynie Smith, CEO of Smart Advantage, Inc., a marketing/management consulting firm

Divining the wants of customers is an age-old issue in trucking – a constant amid the ever-shifting web of regulations, freight flows, and technological advances that create an enormous amount of change for an industry based on blood, sweat, and rolling iron.

Indeed, figuring out how to meet an ever-more demanding customer base is an ongoing challenge for truckers large and small, one that many – like K&K Trucking below – are putting the tap on technology for help.

Yet Jaynie Smith, CEO of Smart Advantage, Inc., a marketing/management consulting firm, contends that what customers value most changes constantly – and that pace of change increased exponentially during and after the “Great Recession.”

I stumbled on the results of one of her research projects and found her findings very interesting. Her analysis of 10 years worth of double-blind customer market research surveys for more than 100 businesses revealed that, 90% of the time, most businesses do not know their customers’ top values. In fact, they are often shocked to learn what’s at the top of the customers’ value list, Smith noted.

“It’s an essential for any business owner during any economic cycle to know what the customer values are, but most don’t,” she added.

Of course, trucking companies and the various businesses that serve them are trying very hard to keep close tabs on such values. For example, take a look at Omaha Truck Center, a Freightliner dealership based out in (where else?) Omaha, Nebraska, and how they try offer more personalized service in order to win repeat business:

Smart Advantage’s Smith also developed a list of “bare-bones” basics to help any business (trucking or otherwise) develop a better approach to customer service:

Customers are usually looking for “how” things are sold, not necessarily “what”is sold.  For most products, there’s any number of suppliers. If someone wants to buy a camera, a doorknob, a car, they can drive to the nearest store or order from the first company that pops up on Google. But they don’t. Why? Because there’s something else they value more than the product itself. It may be product durability, the company’s reputation for customer service, or safety features. “If you don’t value what you bring to the customer, they won’t value it either,” Smith said. “Very few companies know how to effectively articulate what differentiates them, so price often becomes the tiebreaker.”

Understand that existing customers and prospects usually have different values.  Smith’s company research analysis shows that 70% of the time, customers and prospective customers differ in what they most value. When that happens, your message to customers should be different than your message to prospects.  Very few companies make this distinction in sales and marketing messaging. “Existing customers may have come to depend on your top-notch help desk, for example. It’s what they’ve grown to value most about your company,” she explained. “Prospective customers haven’t yet used your help desk so they don’t know how essential this benefit is yet.”

[Regional carrier MCS Trucking, for example, takes this approach in positioning its services in the freight market.]

Use what you learn. If you find customers most value speedy responses when they have a problem, and your customer service department is slow, focus on fixing customer service, Smith stresses. Make sure to tell the customer service employees that customers have rated fast response time as their top priority. When you’ve got stats you can brag about – brag away, such 98% percent of customer calls are returned within 30 minutes; 2% within 1 hour. “Now you’ve used that information in two valuable ways: to make your company more relevant to customers, and to let customers know you’ve got what they want,” she added.

Invest in disciplined customer research. Research data collection costs have gone down 30% to 35% in the past few years and can now be affordable to smaller companies. Double-blind customer market research is the gold standard and well worth the expense, but it’s not feasible for all companies, Smith noted. However, even a small investment in research can reap huge returns. Some less expensive and free alternatives to find out what your customers want include sharing the expense with an industry association; partnering with an organization that needs the same information or a peer that doesn’t compete with you; hiring a college intern; or creating an online survey using a free basic service, such as Survey Monkey.

Of course, at the end of the day for trucking, it’s really all about the drivers. They are the ones hauling the freight customers care about – and the ones the shipper and receiver sees most often.

Now, the MCS Trucking video below is a driver recruiting piece, but notice how this carrier prints up business cards for each of its drivers – including a cell phone number – and drivers are encouraged to leave this with shippers, receivers, and even potential customers.

That’s a pretty smart strategy, if you ask me; a way to create more personalized contact with customers, while raising the profile and value of the driver.  

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