How many times have you heard or even said, “Is that market attractive to us”? We look at the markets we’re in, the markets our competitors are in, maybe even some that are new and wonder if they are/could be good for our business. We may even think of creating or segmenting in a new way.

Stop and think of the hubris in that very question: “Is that market attractive to us?”

What is the real subject of that question? Us! Not the market! This is not as subtle as it seems. Subtleties reveal our organization’s basic assumptions and beliefs — our culture. Words — what, how, when, in which order we use them – mirror our culture. When I hear this question, which I do all the time in my line of work, I don’t hear a marketing question, I see a red flag. I see an organization that is internally focused, not outwardly focused on the customer. To top it off, we only measure things that are meaningful to us, not to our customers, like revenue, profit and share. Worse, these are lagging indicators and outputs instead of leading indicators and outcomes.

Instead, what if we ask, “Are we attractive to Market X?” This nuanced and profound shifts the tone and focus from us to the customer. A subtle change in grammar has a profound change in culture and measures of success. The focus is on the needs of the customers in the customers’ context. Socially oriented businesses are, generally, much better at focusing outwardly than most corporations. In order to solve people’s real needs, social businesses seek to understand the customers’ needs from the context in which they live, work, socialize, etc. — ethnographic market research. If we don’t understand our customers’ real needs and if/how we can provide meaningful, useful solutions to them (outcomes), then we won’t have to worry about lagging indicators and outputs like revenue and profit for too long.

Being market/customer focused is easily said but not easily done for an internally focused culture. Start with a few small steps over the next week:

  • Watch/listen for language. Is it internally or externally focused? Start rephrasing your own words first and then ask others to rephrase their ideas, questions, assertions and assumptions with the customer first;
  • Find a team that is more focused on customers and watch/listen to them. Document what you learn and see how you can apply that to daily work. Even if your “customer” is internal, it’s a start. Don’t be surprised if the team you find isn’t in marketing or sales. They could easily be in customer service, tech support and maybe even engineering or operations!
  • Identify a project that could use some customer-focused research and knowledge. Rally the team to use outward, customer-centric language and maybe even do a “voice of the customer” and/or “day in the life” of the customer. Share what you learn.

This is just a start; it takes time. If you can do this, and stay the course, you can change the culture to focus on solving your customers’ needs instead of your own. The outcome? Products and services that provide meaningful, valuable solutions to your customers. The output? Revenue, profit and share — to fund the investment in products and services that make a difference. Give it a try.

Deb Mills-Scofield has her own consultancy helping organizations create and implement highly actionable, adaptable, measurable, and profitable innovation-based strategic plans. Mills-Scofield also is a partner at Glengary LLC, an early-stage venture capital firm in Cleveland. She has 20-plus years of experience in strategic planning, execution and innovation with manufacturing, service and high-technology companies from large global companies to early-stage. She has also been involved in several carve-outs and startups, including her own. Find her on Twitter or on her website.

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