What Do Customers Want?

One of the most rewarding things I get to do is to work with marketing executives who have been downsized and help them maneuver their way through the chaos to find their next job.  I love helping them out and obviously never charge for this work.  A few years ago one of my clients sent me a Clayton Christensen book thanking me for the help I gave him through one of these journeys.  This gift was the beginning of hours of thinking and deliberation.  In many ways, it changed the way I think of change, customers and the economics of our business.

For a little bit of a primer on Christensen’s thinking take a look at this blog that reports on a talk he recently gave.  I was once again impressed with his thoughts on customers.  Christensen talks about the need to really understand what the customer needs and then develop offerings to satisfy these needs.  The interesting point is that you must go well beyond just talking with customers as they often don’t even know or can’t put into words what they are missing.  This doesn’t mean that you don’t talk with customers but you should treat that merely as a starting point.  Perhaps Henry Ford put it best when he said if he only listened to customers he would have developed a faster horse rather than the automobile.

Take a couple minutes to consider what this means in the pharmaceutical world.  In a world that is dominated by protocols and managed care formularies are we still asking physicians which creative execution they would prefer from our ad agencies?  Are we researching which brand names they think are most clever?  Are we still asking physicians about price when they have very little knowledge of the intricacies of rebates, discounts and other pricing strategies?  Are we still trying to convince physicians to help us in our struggles with payers or are we finding ways to make their lives easier?  Are we really trying to make them better physicians and make their practices run more smoothly?

The first step in all this is to really understand the environment in which payers, providers and patients are living.  How much time do you spend trying to understand what your customers need at an even greater depth than they may know themselves?  This may be the ultimate key to innovation.  We need to figure out the solutions to problems before our customers are even able to understand the problems themselves.  Take another look at the blog and note the Ikea story.  The key to their success is they figured out that people wanted furniture today, not weeks or months in the future.  I would love to have been there as they were going through all the mental gymnastics to come up with that simple idea.

To balance this thinking it is important to always go back to Christensen’s most famous theory of disruptive innovation.  He has, through this model, shown the world that change will often come from outside the industry and will often come through much simpler and less expensive alternatives.  Most products overshoot what the customer really needs and this often forces them to pay much more than necessary for all the bells and whistles.  Does anyone really know how to use more than the basic elements of Microsoft Office?  How many fonts, equations or animations do most people need?  Perhaps that is why generics have taken over 85% of all prescriptions in our industry.  They do a good enough job for most people at an affordable price.  Beyond everything else perhaps that is what our customers really need today.  Take another look at the Christensen’s thinking and see if there might be some powerful clues as to how to turn around our industry.

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