Truth on the Wall Builds Market-Focused Distribution

Even after decades of decorating their offices with framed wall plaques about putting the customer first and building market-focused organizations, companies still struggle to identify and act on unmet customer needs and customer experience gaps in their downstream distribution systems. 

Often when we find ourselves talking to senior leaders about their distribution channel issues, it feels like we’re knee deep in marriage counseling.  Once upon a time, both parties had looked forward to an exciting journey together in which they’d grow and be successful.  But instead many growth-seeking business leaders say they feel trapped in punishing legacy distribution structures.  And they find it even harder still to get these external relationships in motion. Giving managers and their partners the nudge they need to become market-focused is easier through an exercise we call “putting truth on the wall.”

One of the most serious shortfalls in assessing and improving customer experiences in a distribution channel system is ‘confirmation bias’, or the refusal of those involved in performing individual experience-creating activities, even in the face of new evidence, to break from long- and deeply held beliefs about customers and how markets work. Manipulation of customers’ input can make their messages and intent almost unrecognizable to more objective listeners—and certainly to customers themselves. When this happens, deep market listening is dampened, and market action becomes uninspired and barely impactful.

One way to facilitate an improvement in marketplace listening is to help key managers and thought leaders separate what is learned about customer experience gaps from how these gaps might be addressed. The first component, the what, is our ‘truth on the wall’. This step in the journey is the most crucial; if not managed properly, it can undermine the integrity of everything that follows.

“Truth” in this setting means that the exact way in which customers describe their unmet experience needs must be kept intact. “On the wall” refers to writing this truth down and posting it for all to see and refer back to as you discuss strategies —unadulterated and unfiltered.

Although different managers (especially the most senior) may differ in their views of how to respond, it may be up to you to make sure they don’t reshape or manipulate customers’ self-professed experience gaps merely to better fit the current model’s comfort zone. It requires that you’re involved enough to provide a safe zone of cover for your best thinkers; the ones willing to ask what others will consider stupid questions. The managers and future leaders in a channel system that design for customers the kind of new experiences that make old generals groan, and Steve Jobs smile.

So given how tricky listening in the marketplace can be for legacy organizations, a neutral facilitator is typically invaluable in ensuring that conventional beliefs don’t introduce bias. But a word of warning: outside strategy consultants can also be far from neutral when it comes to capturing customer insights and forming strategies for differentiating customers’ experiences. In fact, the longer that big consulting firms have been working in an industry, the more likely it is that they rely on conventional knowledge expertise, which makes them less effective in playing the challenger role. It may instead be the newest member of a leadership team, or even an outside advisor from another industry that generates the freshest voice-of-the-customer and distribution channel improvement insights.

In the end, remember that the real objective in all this hard work in designing new customer experiences is finding golden nuggets of real strategic opportunity. Opportunities for routes-to-market systems to create new outcomes for customers that they can’t get from other companies’ systems.