No company should be an island

Here's how to build some bridges

By Angela Bradbury on 18th May 2018

According to recent research, the average employee receives 304 emails a week and checks their email 36 times an hour.  They attend 62 meetings a month, of which half are considered a waste of time. They receive 56 interruptions per day, generating 2 hours of time spent recovering and refocusing.  Then there’s your actual work to do.

No wonder, by the time we get to the end of our day, the last thing we feel like doing is connecting with people outside our organization, in the pursuit of creative ideas and insights for work.  And we’ve all had bad experiences of having to do that anyway - the endless polite but indifferent swapping of business cards at industry events. Even when you do get to talk to someone relevant, you have an agenda - courting a new hire, or making a sale, or addressing a customer complaint.  All valuable, but none of which really get you to stop navel-gazing.

Go deeper with your customers

Your customers are your richest source of untapped market insight.  And, luckily, you have a wealth of opportunity to access their feedback and suggestions, through every layer of your organization.

Think about all the touchpoints you have: business development, sales, account management, customer services - all have clear roles in understanding what customers care about, how well your current product is meeting those needs, and, crucially, what might make it even better.  And they can go further than customer happiness, by having a constant mindset of being curious, not only about your own product or even vertical, but also adjacent ones. The key is also to have mechanisms and incentives for your teams to feed what they learn back up the chain of command, to enable leadership to make customer-driven decisions.

In 2011, Samsung made what looked like a gamble, that consumers would buy into an extra-large screen, with the Note 1.  The Verge called it a bad idea, The New York Times thought it so “half-baked, the oven must not even be warm”. But Samsung was right - consumers loved it, and they sold more than 50 million of the Note 1.

How did they know? Back in 2006, Samsung developed a New Concept Development (NCD) process that all their business units could implement and execute when innovating new products and services.  As a part of Samsung’s overall innovation process, the Project Innovation Team (PIT) was born, as an incubator group to work with every business unit to provide more market insight.  The PIT conducts field research, collects data, ideas and information to gain insight into the user’s perspective. They also study the market and stay current with who and what is making the most noise.  They then analyse this data to generate new ideas and concepts. So, far from being a gamble, the Note 1 was the logical conclusion of a wealth of research and feedback.

Take your competitors seriously

It can be tempting to take the stance that ‘it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing, let’s just focus on what we’re doing’.  That can be useful to a certain extent, but it does pay to keep track of your competitors. Those parallel to yours are the most obvious to keep track of - so you can identify potential M&A opportunities, new products or markets that you might consider moving into, and investment and leadership changes that may precede other significant changes in your industry.  These don’t need to take a lot of research time - simply set up alerts through tools like Watch My Competitor and Google News to get them straight to your inbox.

For years, Papa John’s lagged competitors Pizza Hut and Domino’s in perceived quality.  Realizing the threat and the opportunity of popular health conscious food trends, Papa John’s wanted customers to understand that they were using high quality products.  Their new adverts and social media campaign in 2015 pushed the slogan “Better ingredients. Better pizza” and went into details about their supply chain.  And, after steadily falling sales growth figures, 2016 sales growth jumped back up.

And don’t underestimate the value of tracking non-competing companies with similar client bases but complementary offerings.  Accenture, a global technology and management consulting firm, builds bridges from their employees and clients to startups through their Open Innovation program.  Red Bull, often considered to produce “best practice” sport-related branded entertainment, took this to another level (literally!) with Felix Baumgartner’s Stratos stunt, partnering with several companies including GoPro.

In 2016, Unilever, an 80-year-old global personal care manufacturer and wholesaler, acquired Dollar Shave Club, a direct-to-consumer men’s grooming startup.  Despite their relatively small market share (5%), the price was a rumored $1bn, reflecting their high growth and unconventional but wildly successful marketing techniques.  Together, this has given them the chance to challenge P&G’s Gillette (59% market share).

There’s lots more to see if you take a look around

Partnerships don’t just need to be with other companies - think about charities and supporting social sector development too.  For example, P&G and UNICEF paired up for Pampers’ "1 Pack = 1 Vaccine" campaign, with a joint goal of eliminating maternal and newborn tetanus.  And you can even make a direct impact in your local community and even workforce, like Legal & General teaming up with the Thomas Pocklington Trust to run employability workshops for blind and partially sighted people.

In today’s environment of keen public scrutiny, it pays to stay on top of likely regulatory and policy changes.  If your company is influential enough, it’s important to build good government relations before a crisis like Facebook’s data breach.  Energy companies know this well, with the increasing pressure for green initiatives, prompting many of their CEOs to proactively collaborate with policymakers on climate change and carbon legislation, for example PG&E’s Peter Darbee.

Of course, the financial markets create industry-wide shifts too, and we can sometimes feel powerless in a recession.  But there may be positive changes you can make to react quickly to such external conditions. During the early stages of the financial crash, Starbucks knew that luxuries like quality coffee would be the first thing to go for customers, and repositioned themselves to be about customer happiness: “The Starbucks Experience” – new coffees, nourishing coffee blends and an extended breakfast menu were introduced, alongside a rewards program and a focus on feel-good ethics.

Timing can be make-or-break

No company is an island; external conditions for a product or market launch, and your ability to react to social, political and economic contexts and shifts, can mean the difference between becoming a market leader or going under.  With so many sources and methods of engaging deeply with world outside your own company, you don’t need to fall victim to chance. So start building those bridges today.