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Case study: Harness customer insights to drive product innovation, message alignment and more

CMOs can build credibility - and grow the bottom line - with customer insights

Team collaborating at meeting table

In today’s results-driven marketing landscape, CMO credibility comes from driving top and bottom-line growth along with softer metrics such as customer empathy/advocacy. Personally, I’ve found tremendous value in customer listening tours or gathering insights to help me better advocate for customers, and in turn, create opportunities for my company/client. These insights inform website optimization, product development, message alignment and much more.


Marketers, when was the last time you went on a customer listening tour?


Getting started with market research


While there are dozens of market research studies you can perform (think customer segmentation, product testing, advertising testing, customer satisfaction, usability testing, awareness and usage research and pricing research, among others), start by:


  1. Reviewing existing primary and/or secondary customer or industry research - this will give you the confidence to advocate for your customers with "table stakes" insights and understand if any baseline data exists for customer satisfaction, etc.

  2. Building your insights wishlist - what is missing from existing research that, if better understood, would address your company’s pain points? What challenge/opportunities have been identified as your first priorities? Use those to build your insights wishlist - if you wind up with a list longer than you’d planned, prioritize the insights based on their perceived impact.

  3. Practicing “GOOB” (getting out of the building) - having face-to-face conversations with customers will go a long way in building your credibility with colleagues, direct reports and especially sales (not to mention it’s an agile marketing best practice). Building empathy for your customers will give you the ability to advocate for them and drive innovation in messaging, product development and much more.


Case studies: Leveraging customer insights to drive value


CASE STUDY: Customer insights inform product development and new go-to-market messaging to drive 30% growth at Bentley University


During my time as CMO at Bentley University, a business university outside Boston, there were many competing interests and points of view on how to address double-digit declines in MBA enrollment ranging from creating a new downtown campus to offering new industry-specific MBA concentrations. As different as the proposed solutions were, they were similar in that they all lacked one thing: customer intelligence (note: in higher education, you’ll get a lot more buy-in using “student” instead of “customer”). Think that’s unusual? Apparently not: in Monetizing Innovation: How Smart Companies Design the Product Around the Price, the authors and seasoned executives posit,


The most important [way to avoid product failure] is having in-depth discussions with target customers long before the product development team begins to draw up the engineering plans, and certainly long before any resources are committed and configured to building something. Shockingly, 80% of companies don’t have this type of discussion with customers early in product development.

As ideas were spiraling, I made a case to hit “pause” on signing new leases and went on my own customer listening tour of MBA students. I scoured third-party research (GMAC had just released this invaluable study based on 5,000 interviews with prospective students) to better understand customer motivations and the differences between local students seeking to gain new skills vs. international students seeking to gain respect achieved with studying abroad. I also held a series of focus groups with prospective students from our database and produced the following insights:


  • Downtown program wouldn’t hurt but it’s not a silver bullet: location & parking/transit are critical

  • Fast & flexible: students prefer taking classes online to finish faster, want flexibility in everything from modality to location.

  • Cohorts are a constraint: part-time students just want to finish fast

  • Experiential learning and career services are must haves and considered “table stakes”


Most importantly, this research helped us gain an appreciation for just how busy our target audience was and how programs needed to fit into their daily schedules, underscoring the need to quickly shift from moving downtown to moving online (see the related slide below from my focus group readout). Based on these insights from June 2017, the university funded the development of a hybrid (mix of online and offline) MBA offering and in January 2018, we enrolled students in the school’s first online MBA program.

Slide with results from MBA student focus group Bentley University

Results? Six months later, we had grown the part-time MBA program by 30% and 12 months later, had generated 200% more leads despite continuing declines in demand - read the case study.


CASE STUDY: Customer insights help win back dormant customers at Emerson Ecologics


Stepping into the fractional or interim VP of marketing role at Emerson Ecologics, a company linking integrative health practitioners and their patients, I became aware that winning back a small percentage of their dormant customers (in their case, integrative doctors) could yield significant results and set out to better understand why doctors had never used and/or left the Emerson platform.


Survey insights informed new policies and practices to win back dormant customers and retain new customers including:


  • Guaranteed price matching to eliminate perceived price disparity and keep customers from leaving to “shop around”

  • Payment plans to mitigate risk for new doctors who expressed feeling overwhelmed by the upfront costs to set up a practice let alone buy inventory for an in-office dispensary

  • Starter kits with a month’s supply of best selling products which helped to address new customer concerns about not having enough time to browse the catalog and get started


Contact me if you're interested in harnessing customer insights to drive growth for your company.

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