I know a number of manufacturers and distributors who are scratching their heads as to why their great new product or service is not getting the customer attention and adoration it deserves. The truth is, when you get an exciting new idea or have one presented to you from outside your organization – from an inventor looking to license, for example – the very people you rely on to gauge market potential may be letting you down.
In these situations, we often look to our product development and product management team, sales reps or key customers for feedback. Yet they could be filtering out great products by imposing their personal preferences or market reaction assumptions. Retailers often stock what they think their key customers will buy. If their their predications are wrong, however, then great products can go overlooked.
Thanks to the Internet age of retailing, this is coming to light in a powerful way. Since real estate is relatively inexpensive online, especially when compared to in a retail store, sites like Amazon, eBay Stores or indeed a manufacturer's own e-commerce website, have made all of a brand's products available to end users and are kept in stock. And since 'in stock' online can be fulfilled by having only a single unit in inventory, a much broader range of products can achieve customer exposure.
Conversely, when you walk into a retail store and look at a company's products, you are only seeing what the retailer has chosen to show you – they have filtered the rest out.
By watching the Internet effect of a wider offering or total range of products, manufacturers and distributors have found new, enthusiastic, customers for items that previously were very slow movers. This is because the retail stores purchasing manager didn't get to predict what would work and the customer could decide what they wanted based on several options.
We've heard the story before: The inventor who knocks on 20 doors to get her new invention to market only to have every door slammed in her face. Finally, she finds a supportive partner and her new gadget is an 'overnight' success. The truth is, the customer demand was always there, it was just being filtered out by the previous 20 companies who thought they knew what the consumers wanted and incorrectly filtered out a winning design.
Steve Jobs is famous for shunning market testing and focus groups – insisting that "people don't know what they want until you show it to them." I wouldn't go that far – I have certainly gained a lot of insight by sharing ideas with outside groups prior to committing to certain design details. But I do think he was onto something. I think he was describing the very filter effect I have witnessed time and time again.
So, how does your small business avoid unnecessary product or service filtering in your channel? There is only one way. You mustn't rely totally on your sales channel to display and market your product, you must reinforce it yourself. You must do everything you can to let the end user pick the winners and losers through natural selection, not artificial cherry picking by sales channel buyers or purchasing agents.
Try to make sure all your products are equally accessible by your website and sell directly to end users if you can, to see where there may be hidden demand. Social media and testimonials are also a great way to make sure any sleeping dog products you may have are not unnecessarily being looked over.
Finally, the biggest impact you can have is simply by recognizing that neither you, nor your sales reps or your dealer network have a crystal ball when it comes to understanding what may wow a customer. Fight back any resistance to quickly dismiss a new opportunity because of your own personal bias or that of your network.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and sold seven businesses.
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