If that sounds overwhelming, we have two acronyms for you: APQC and ISBM. The American Productivity and Quality Center is one of the world's leading benchmarking firms. Based in Houston, Texas, APQC has probably already benchmarked any area you can think of. Instead of forming a company benchmark team that will take three months just to frame their work, check them out at apqc.org.
But if — like most people — you tend to learn more from people than reports, find an organization to tap into. If you are a B2B provider (not consumer goods), you can't do better than the Institute for the Study of Business Markets. Based at Penn State, the ISBM counts as its members over 100 leading researchers and 70 of the most advanced B2B firms. To check out a wealth of reports, consortia, workshops and other learning opportunities, visit isbm.org. Adams says you might be surprised by how much "inside information" these thought leaders are willing to share.
"These firms know that companies that simply 'hoard their secrets' fall behind those that continually share and adapt," Adams points out. "As Ralph Oliva, executive director of ISBM, puts it: 'It's really about how you implement new tools. Tiger Woods wouldn't be worried if I used the same golf clubs as he did.'"
Survival Strategy #3: Ask customers what they want.
The third and final tip can be practiced only by companies that provide products and services to other companies (not consumers, in other words). Solid research done by Huthwaite International indicates that the best way to sell a product is to ask customers what they want. In designing his new-to-the-world New Product Blueprinting process, Dan Adams asked, "If that's true, why wait until the product is already developed? Let's ask customers before it's developed so we can a) develop a better product and b) engage them so they'll be primed to buy."
This isn't practical if you sell toothpaste to millions of people, but it works quite well if you're a B2B provider and would like to influence your 10 largest customers. Adams has developed a host of tools used to interview B2B customers in a very respectful, peer-to-peer fashion that leaves customers very engaged in your new product development. Of course, new products can take more than a year to develop. So how is this going to help you now, in the middle of an economic downturn? According to Adams, that's the fun part — and one of the unforeseen, unintended consequences of his brand of B2B product development.
"We were focused on long-term product development, but our clients began telling us that their newly learned interview techniques so impressed prospective customers that it cast them in a new light," Adams explains. "Imagine you are the customer: The last 10 suppliers have tried to sell you something they already have, and here comes a supplier that listens to you to understand your needs. Who would you want to work with?"
Adams relates this example: A marketing manager in Europe had been trying to start one new product project with a customer in the United Kingdom for years. At the end of his first New Product Blueprinting interview, he left the customer with six projects in hand. Customers are simply looking for suppliers who are competent and care about them.
The bottom line? It's time to put these three tips into practice and keep a cool head about you. Human nature being what it is the chances are good your less astute (and more fear-driven) competitors won't.
"When the tide goes out and the economy turns down, your competitors will be tempted to forego their long-term prospects in favor of short-term survival," says Adams. "You should hope nobody dissuades them. As Napoleon said, 'Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.'
"And here's the best news of all," he adds. "Have you noticed that none of these three tips asks for near-term/long-term trade-off? In every case — reducing R&D waste, adapting new best practices and engaging customers — you will reduce your short-term pain during the downturn and increase your long-term gain afterwards. So regardless of the tide, keep your swimsuit on and enjoy your swim."