Staying Ahead of Customer Demand
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Some companies seem to know what innovations and improvements their customers will want before the customers know themselves. It’s not magic or even blind luck. Gaining such insight requires a disciplined embrace of disruptive change, customer focus, and analytics.

"Often, companies are so busy just doing the day-to-day stuff that they don't think they have the time or the energy to devote to looking ahead," says Dr. Jim Taylor, a consultant and writer based in San Francisco who focuses on performance psychology. "One thing that's very clear in our economy is that if you're not looking ahead, you're going to get blindsided by change." Here are a few ways to make your company prepared to serve the customer of the future:

Embrace change

First and foremost, you need to foster a corporate culture that doesn't merely tolerate change, but actively seeks it out, Taylor says. "I try to re-frame ‘discomfort' because that should be your goal," he says. "If you're not uncomfortable, you're staying where you are."

He cites the examples of companies that were market leaders and ultimately fell from their perches because they were complacent or misread the direction of their primary markets. "They seemed unbeatable, but that's the problem with success," he notes. "It is a natural human reaction that comes from hundreds of thousands of years of evolution; when you ‘make it,' you feel safe, and you lose your motivation." 

Get into your customer's head.

Knowing what your customers will want is certainly not as simple as asking. Instead, you must tease out needs that aren't fully articulated. That requires understanding how your customer uses products like yours, and particularly, how they compensate for their shortcomings. Say you sell a piece of software. Do customers use it in an unexpected way, or turn to manual workarounds to get it to cooperate with their other applications?

These are potential opportunities for innovation. With the ubiquity of customer relationship management (CRM) software, your entire organization can document just about every customer interaction and glean insights not just from sales, but also from customer service requests, billing issues, and other pain points.

Bring your value proposition into the future.

The most successful companies are those able to maintain their core identity across multiple product lines, customer segments, and distribution channels. What is your company known for? How can that value proposition serve future customers given the underlying trends in the market, technology, or culture? If, for example, a company considered itself a DVD brick and mortar rental company or mailorder delivery service, it likely would have missed the boat for online streaming. But if it defined itself more broadly as offering convenient delivery of entertainment, it was better equipped to transition into online streaming. What trends are changing the way your customers think or operate?

In the end, anticipating customer demand depends on focusing less on what products and services you offer, and more on what customer needs you can fulfill in the future. "It's only by taking risks, challenging yourself, getting uncomfortable, and trying new things that companies can see around the corner, because the definition of survival is change," Taylor says.

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