Customers Know What Customers Know Best

Along with having a way with words, Mark Twain, the acclaimed American author and journalist, offered an insight into the business end of the energy industry when he said, "There are lies, damned lies and statistics." That comment is still relevant a century after his death.

As much as we like to cite data in support of our conclusions and decisions, sometimes the assumptions we stretch from our collection of data, while not lies in a strict biblical sense, may not be totally true.

Instead of gathering data, what is more appropriate now is becoming a master problem solver by getting inside customers’ heads to really understand their needs, wants, and requirements. To do this, you need to gather intelligence. Be mindful that obtaining meaningful customer intel is a far cry from just gathering data. Obtaining first-person, primary intelligence means engaging customers by speaking with them directly to understand all underlying issues in play.

Getting inside your customers’ heads means you comprehend what their real issues are, and you can do this better than anyone else they might encounter. This ability builds a bridge of trust and is a powerful advantage. Instead of pushing programs or pressing services, you create an atmosphere that sets your organization apart from any alternative that might be considered competition. The end result is that customers pull you into frank and revealing discussions of their issues.

In the pursuit of information about people and what they think and believe, in my experienced opinion, first-person intel trumps any kind of data you can get. I find it incredible that much information being proffered about how to convince customers to think differently about energy use concerns what other stakeholders believe are the most compelling and logical points to consider. This is true whether customers are residential, commercial, or industrial or the topic is smart grid, smart meters, or electric vehicles.

Respected organizations may provide current research on customer energy issues, but the real way to understand what your customers think is to interview them … individually. Reach out to your customers and learn first-hand what they think. Discover what’s important to them, not what you believe should be their rationale for buying into your latest energy program. Don’t invest in an impersonal Internet or call center survey. Instead, charge representatives to talk to their customers one-on-one in a face-to-face interview in their office, plant, or home environment. If you want to be thorough, interview a good sample of your customers in all of your regions. What customers in one locale think about energy use may be quite different from the views held in another area.

Business development is all about gathering the right intelligence—discovering what your customers’ challenges are and helping them get the right solutions to their energy problems. This process involves more than validating problems you believe are present and offering solutions you just happen to be "pushing" as the fix. Customers may be concerned about any  number of things, from the fact that the U.S. is buying fossil fuel from unfriendly entities to run its fleet of trucks and personal vehicles, to desiring more control over energy usage, to the costs of running our manufacturing plants and homes. To obtain valid information, we need to go to the source of the information we want and ask the customer directly.

This concept runs across the entire energy industry, whether you’re a regulated utility, nonregulated spin-off, energy product producer, or energy service provider.

Wish you could get inside your customer’s head? If so, forget the data, and go to the source.

Twain may have said it even better when he said, "It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so."

—Bill Scheessele is chairman and chief executive officer of MBDi, an international consulting firm offering a range of revenue generation resources designed to produce rapid and lasting growth.

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