Features

Published on May 4th, 2016 | by Millennium Magazine Staff

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Why You Need to Take a Fresh Look at Your Market

Years ago I was a foreign correspondent in Mexico City, writing for Business Week and other business publications. One of my favorite contacts was an expert with the U.S. Embassy who updated me on Mexican oil industry news. We had lunch about once a month. He became a friend. So I was disappointed when he told me, at lunch one day, that he was being transferred out of Mexico.

“What? but you’ve only been here for three years,” I said. “You’ve barely learned the good restaurants!” Which was true, but, way more important, he knew the people, the language, and the economic sector he was supposed to cover. It didn’t make sense.

However, he explained to me that the U.S. foreign service moved people about every three years on purpose. “Otherwise we think we know everything and we stop questioning assumptions,” he said, “that’s dangerous.”

And I tell that story here as a lead-in to a similar problem we face as business owners. I see it often, in myself as an owner and working with other owners. It’s way too easy for us — business owners and operators —to fall into the same trap, getting too familiar with what we think we know, and losing sight of changes. No matter what business we’re in, it’s constantly changing, but it’s also easy for us to miss the change because we’re absorbed with the day-to-day routine and immediate problems.

It’s Not Market Research

I don’t agree with many experts who say that thorough market research is an essential component of every business plan. I go with the principle of efficiency, doing only what you need, and only what you’re going to use, as part of your planning. So if you really do know your market, and you’re ready to make business decisions and take risks based on that knowledge, I say you go ahead. You don’t have time, resources, or budget to do market research for our normal planning process.

But Do Take The Fresh Look

The fresh look isn’t rigorous market research. It’s taking a step back from the business and taking a good objective look at your market, why people buy, who competes against you, what else you might do, what your customers think about you. Think of the artist squinting to get a better view of the landscape. Think creatively. Talk with people. And listen. Open your mind about markets and trends.

One important part of this is engaging a few good customers. Take a few people to lunch. Generate a good conversation about ideas related to business, and changes. Make sure they don’t take this as a sales pitch. And be careful to listen to criticism and new ideas. Having the right attitude for this is hard, but you can do it. Call it brainstorming. Call it a thank-you lunch for their business. And make the conversation 90% listening and 10% talking.

And also talk to people outside of your usual network. Talk to people in related businesses that don’t compete. Talk to your local Small Business Development Center experts.

Read up on your market. Do some web searches. Look at census data. Shop your competitors’ businesses. Open your eyes.

The key to this idea is the fact that things change. Yes, you do know your market when you have a successful business and you talk to your customers. But what about other potential customers you don’t know because you’ve never thought of them? What about developments that could make your business interesting to new types of customers? What about competition you don’t see – because you’re not looking – that threatens your future? Are you watching? Do you have your antennas up? Or are you too busy to look.

Are you saying “we tried that and it didn’t work” to new marketing activities? Are you saying “this is the way we’ve always done it” to stifle suggestions? Think about it. What didn’t work in 2014 might be just what your business needs right now. And what did work in 2014 might be hurting you today.

Remember to stress benefits. Review what benefits your customers receive when they buy with your, and follow those benefits into a new view of your market.

This approach is what I call the fresh look. Question all your assumptions.

What has always been true may not be true anymore.

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