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​This week starts by considering how data, and the information that results from data, are an extension of “listening to customers”. It distinguishes between secondary and primary data, and then between qualitative and quantitative research methods, exploring some of the techniques that can be used to collect data. 

In a conversation you speak and you listen. In market research you listen. Despite some stereotypes, the best salespeople and the most customer-oriented managers make time and effort to listen. 

Amid the urgency and noise of work, many managers lose sight of the all-important requirement to observe and listen to their customers. 

The example below relates a conversation between two guests at a hotel. The hotel manager could have learned a lot if he had been listening to what the guests were saying:

Bob is rejoining Gill in the garden of a hotel at lunchtime. 
Gill: Have you ordered our food? 
Bob: Yes, but if you want to eat in the garden they only serve sandwiches. We need to listen for them to call ‘Table 15’. 
Gill: That’s a shame. I wanted a cooked meal. Why do they only serve sandwiches? 
Bob: They started to explain but it all seemed very complicated. Anyway, I’ve ordered two steak and onion baguettes with salad — they were very reasonable. 
Gill: Drinks were cheap too, for a hotel. 
Bob: Yes, I thought they might have increased their prices since they smartened the place up. 
Gill: Mind you, they’ve still got a lot to do in this garden — look at all those weeds in that bed. And this garden furniture doesn’t match the style of the new conservatory at all. 
Bob: I think I heard her call Table 15 — at least they’re quick! 
Gill: Might mean they’re not freshly made. 
(After the sandwiches have been brought to the table) 
Gill: Well, she seemed to be in a really bad mood! 
Bob: Yes, good thing she brought us the right sandwiches — I didn’t even dare ask for the mustard! 
Gill: Hey, that’s not fair: you’ve got loads of onions and I’ve got almost none. 
Bob: You can have some of mine — but eat up, it’s scarcely warm. 
Gill: Oh no! Those young men heading for the next table look as though they’ve had far too much already. 
Bob: I thought the hotel was trying to lose that sort of clientele now. 
Gill: The language! I'm glad your mother decided not to join us for lunch after all. 
Bob: Shall we finish up and go now? 

In the life of a hotel, one conversation recording the experiences and perceptions of just two customers is not significant. None the less, this one is full of data which could be of interest to the manager, especially if complemented by data about the experiences and perceptions of other customers. 

A long list from a short conversation? Decisions about pricing policy, staff training, portion control procedures, ordering procedures, decor, the resources devoted to gardening and the promotion of the hotel to targeted population segments could flow from this conversation. Such decisions could have a significant impact on the value that customers would attach to their experience of the hotel. 

However, the manager would need more data from more customers (and perhaps past or potential customers) to see if the resulting information presented a coherent and convincing case for any particular decisions. Information from other hotels could also be useful, such as the prices similar hotels charge. 

This example shows some of the key elements of market research: 

  • the gathering of data which in many cases is an extension of the listening process 
  • the conversion of that data into a form which conveys useful information 
  • the use of that information to take action. 

Usually market research will be done to find out specific information to help with particular decisions. To do this it is important to establish what questions need to be asked, of whom, and how they should be phrased. 

Strictly speaking, research into the markets for products and services is known as ‘market research’ and research into marketing practices such as advertising is known as ‘marketing research’, but the terms are often used interchangeably. We will use the term ‘market research’ to cover both aspects. 

Data, information and decisions 

Data is defined simply as raw, undigested facts. An example of data is the number of people using different brands of toothpaste. Information, on the other hand, is data that has been made sense of, generally by combining and comparing it with other data: for example, that peppermint is the most popular flavour of toothpaste sold to adults between the ages of 20 and 40. 

Decisions may follow. For example, a company may decide to launch a new brand of toothpaste taking account of information about population segments, customers’ preferences, competitors' products and much else besides. 

Market research can be considered as an information management process or system, which Dibb et al. (1997) describe in three stages: 

1. the gathering of inputs (data) from internal and external information sources 
2. the processing of the data into information: classifying, storing, indexing and retrieving it (this can be informal as well as formal) 
3. the output of informed decision making.  

Across sectors, market research can lead to decisions that better reflect the customers’ needs, behaviours and desires. For example, “What should our advertisement be saying?” is better expressed by the questions: “What needs do customers have which our service meets, and how do we tell them about our ability to meet their needs?” 
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For an organisation to communicate effectively with its external audiences, it is necessary for it to have effective internal communication. Yet how often do we hear about well-laid plans being ruined by poor internal communication, for example when employees are the last to be told about plans, or when managers fail to listen to those around them?

All the communication principles described earlier apply equally within organisations; indeed, they are an essential part of management. The need for good communication underpins everything that managers do.

In communicating with other members of the organisation, a manager has to exchange ideas, attitudes, values, opinions and information. This may take up most of their time, but without this concern for communication managers achieve little.

Within organisations, communication means more than just sending information. The meaning of the message must be clear, all parties need to understand what is being said, and the sender must be ready to receive feedback and react to it. So managers need to develop these skills.

Some of the reasons for communication within an organisation are:

  • Informing those who need to know, because they are charged with implementing the plans, because they are affected in some way by the plans, or because the manager wants them to react to the plans.

  • Acting as advocate in order to influence other people to solicit their support.

  • Instigating dialogue with members of the organisation in order to shape and improve plans, to take account of people's specialist knowledge, or to 'sell' ideas so that plans are accepted.

  • Developing networks and a sense of belonging to build a more committed, informed and conscientious workforce. People are bound together in a team to which they relate and feel loyalty.

  • Developing esteem by saying ‘you are important’ and ‘thank you’ to those in the organisation who serve as role models for others to follow. People are proud to belong to organisations which recognise and reward their efforts, and this cannot be achieved without good communication.

  • Improving performance and ensuring that people feel good about working for the organisation.

  • Enhancing teamworking, adopting multi-professional approaches and working across boundaries.

These broad aims are channelled - formally and informally - to a variety of audiences.

Formal channels follow the structure of the organisation. As a manager, you need to send messages to subordinates, peers and superiors - downward, horizontal and upward communications. Equally importantly, all these people need to communicate with you, to provide feedback on messages received from you, and to feed through their ideas, opinions and information.

​We have looked at the communication process and the audiences. Next week we will look at the different vehicles that can be used to carry the message.
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Let us think about your organisation’s external audiences. External customers include actual or potential buyers or users of a product or service and a host of other people, groups or organisations who might have an influence on the organisation’s behaviour. Below we list a fairly typical range.

Audiences who might buy from your organisation: 

  • consumers 
  • distributors 
  • government departments 
  • businesses. 

Audiences your organisation might wish to influence: 

  • suppliers 
  • supporters 
  • donors 
  • government 
  • society as a whole 
  • international agencies (e.g. UN, WHO, WTO) 
  • bankers 
  • commentators 
  • competitors 
  • pressure groups, such as environmental groups 
  • the media. 

No doubt you can add to this list from your own experience. Whoever your audiences are, you need to find an appropriate way to inform, influence and communicate with them. 

Some of the messages you send might be saying, “We have something for you”. Your organisation might be launching a new brand or a new aspect of its consultancy service, or perhaps a “new, improved” version of a long-established product. Other messages might be saying, “We are better/more dependable/friendlier/more concerned about the environment than our competitors”. 

Some reasons for communicating with external audiences are: 

  • Increased sales might result from promoting the organisation’s growing portfolio of brands. For example, a company with a reputation for general outdoor wear might develop and promote a new range of specialist wear for adventure and travel. Advertisements can announce this to targeted external audiences who are already aware of the brand. 
  • Enhancing the image of a place, an organisation or a brand should result in customers having a more positive attitude. For an organisation this might lead to an increase in the number of investors. For example, there was a period when some holidaymakers rejected the idea of visiting Spain, since they perceived it as being primarily for holidays by the sea. This changed after advertising campaigns in magazines promoted the cultural richness of cities such as Madrid, with its numerous museums and art galleries.
  • Positioning the brand means the target audience understands what the brand does and what is unique about it. In the UK hotel market, Travelodge is positioned as offering good-quality overnight budget accommodation. Initially, this meant accommodation without some of the extra services that drive up price (for example, no telephone in the room and no room service). By contrast, Forte’s top-range, exclusive international hotels are positioned as being some of the world’s best hotels, offering customised service and unparalleled splendour, and prices to match.
  • Influencing the purchasing habits of customers and trying to make them more brand-loyal so that whenever they but a product or service they return to the same brand or organisation.
  • Providing information is a key factor in all communications. Newspaper and magazine advertisements for cars often provide information to enable comparisons to be made between different models, as well as informing the potential customer of availability. Classified press advertising is a prime source of information, although the way that people interpret the information might not be as the advertiser intended! 
  • Reporting on outcomes: some organisations need to report on outcomes to government departments and interested agencies.
  • Monitoring and auditing activities is a key requirement for a number of organisations, which will produce reports and plans as part of this process. 
  • Customer care, such as the provision of after-sales care, will reassure customers and ensure that they are more likely to buy again or tell others about an organisation's products and services. Communicating the ways in which it cares will therefore help the organisation both directly and indirectly.
  • Reinforcement of the purchasing decisions is also an important role of communications. The advertisement for Range Rover is probably intended to reinforce as much as it is intended to persuade people to buy it.
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One of the important parts of ISO 9001:2015 can be categorised as one word - communication.

We can never be sure that our messages are understood, even when dealing with work colleagues, so think how much harder it is when we talk to other organisations or the general public. The major assumption underlying this session is that all organisations and individuals need to communicate: to impart or exchange information in a meaningful, timely and clear way.

  • Current and potential customers must be told about the products or services on offer.
  • Suppliers and distributors must be kept informed. 
  • Employees need to know what is happening in their organisation, what it stands for, what its objectives are and in which direction is it moving.
  • Colleagues need to know what one another’s departments are doing.
  • All areas need to know what is happening throughout the organisation so that they can work towards a common aim.
  • The general public needs to know what organisations are doing and plan to do.

You will no doubt agree that communication is not straightforward. How can you tell whether your understanding matches what was intended? If will depend on a number of factors: the message, the vehicle and the type of person you are.

The vehicle or channel that is used to communicate might affect your interpretation of the message. For example, you may expect a suit to be more expensive if it is advertised in an exclusive magazine rather than in a widely distributed newspaper. An experiment a few years ago proved this.

Customers were asked to estimate the price of the same dress advertised in two different magazines. Those who were shown the advertisement in an exclusive magazine priced the dress at about 25 per cent more than those who saw it in the lower-priced, less exclusive one.

The situation in which a message is sent or received will have an effect as well. While this paragraph may have been written in a sunny study with a view of trees outside the window, you may be reading it on a commuter train after an exhausting day at work: the writer’s attention was focused on the message, your attention may be distracted by the ticket inspector or the headlines in your neighbour's newspaper.

What we are beginning to describe here is the classic model of communication.

All messages have a sender and a receiver. The sender seeks to transmit the message in such a way that the receiver understands it and acts on it as the sender intended. The sender, therefore, needs to encode the message and send it via a vehicle (the medium of transmission, or channel) so that it can be decoded by the receiver. The aim is for the message ‘as sent’ to be the same as the message ‘as received’, although in practice there will be a lot of noise and distortion.

The way a sender encodes a message depends on the content of the message, the abilities and mood of the sender, and the assumptions the sender makes about the receiver.

The message may be conveyed using a communication vehicle such as television, the newspaper, radio, e-mail, the Internet and so on. The communication vehicle itself may be carrying lots of other messages - for example advice, information, advertising - much of which will be background noise.

The audience will have to decode the message, and whether they do so will depend not only on their abilities but also on the amount of noise surrounding the message. We would expect some response from the audience once they have decoded the message: an expression of satisfaction, a purchase. or a request for more information.
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Last week we looked at the link between quality and brand performance. This week we look at how customers’ needs change over time, and the way their expectations of products also change.

​For a brand to be successful, wherever it is sold it must:

1. deliver functional benefits to meet the market need at least as well as the competition does

2. offer intangible benefits over and above the basic benefit of the core product

3. comprise various benefits which are consistent with each other and present a unified character or identity

4. offer special features that customers want, that is, something valued and which customers judge nobody else can offer. Being ozone-friendly or low in cholesterol are features that are appropriate in the 21st century, although they probably would not have sold many products 50 years ago!

As a final comment on meeting customers’ needs and wants, we can link together our discussion on product levels, product life-cycles and brands. We have seen that customers’ needs change over time and their expectations of products also change.

Needs may change because circumstances change; for example, when a couple have children, they may need a larger car. Consumers’ expectations change as organisations develop and later products and think up new features and benefits which add value to their offering.

Customers begin to expect new features as part of the standard offering and look to organisations to provide them. The implication for organisations is that they have to continually develop the products they offer as well as launch new products to fulfil new needs that customers may have.

It also means that over time some products are no longer wanted by customers so organisations have to stop providing them and therefore need other products to replace the revenue that they lose. In order to achieve this, organisations need a balance between cash-generating or resource-attracting products (income) and cash- or resource-using ones (expenditure).

Organisations cannot sustain a negative cashflow over a long period unless they have substantial reserves and clear objectives for doing so. So a major task for organisations is to decide which products to encourage and develop, continue with, phase down or phase out in order to maintain cashflow.

Organisations also need a constant flow of new ideas from which new products will eventually grow and be introduced to the market.

In addition to new product ideas, other innovations are necessary:

  • additions to bring variety to an existing product range - for example a car manufacturer adding an extra model to the range, or a bank introducing a new savings account
  • repositioning — targeting existing products at new markets or segments of markets
  • improvement to or replacement of existing products. We see this in most product areas on a regular basis. For example, in the UK the Vauxhall Vectra car was updated after its introduction to change its body shape slightly, improve certain design areas, and update and upgrade the technology used in the engine. In time, Vauxhall improved the car again, before eventually replacing it with a new model with a different name and shape, but aimed at the same target market.

New product development, then, is an important part of any organisation's activities. It does not happen by chance, but must be planned for and given resources to ensure it happens.

A final implication of the constantly changing nature of customers’ needs and expectations is the development of brand names by organisations. This drive is aimed at creating repeat purchasing among customers and, hopefully, loyalty to a particular product.

This means that although organisations still need to improve existing products and develop new ones, customers may continue to buy an organisation's products because they trust the quality, and feel an affinity with the brand identity rather than because it always provides the most innovative products.
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Last week we looked at how brands which are well known and trusted can serve as a shortcut for consumers trying to choose between competing offers. This week we look at the link between quality and brand performance.

​Arnold (1992) says that three important principles have emerged from research into brand performance:

1. Market leaders and superior brand positions are interlinked. Top brands are virtually all leaders, or joint leaders, in their markets. This is not just because the companies spend a lot on advertising or because the brands have a good name or are inherently better quality products. It is the perception of quality by the customer which is important. That perception depends on how the product meets customers’ needs and wants.

UNICEF, the children’s charity, is able to encourage donations through a well-established image and a perception that it is meeting customers’ needs - both the children it helps and the people who give their time or money so that the organisation can carry out its objectives.

2. Market-leading brands tend to have higher profit margins. Research shows that market leaders command a price premium and therefore make higher profits. Recent surveys conclude that in the USA the market leader returns a margin four times that of the number two in the market, and in the UK the margin is six times greater. Leading brands also demonstrate greater resilience during recessions or price wars. Perceived superior quality is reflected in consumers’ willingness to pay more.

3. There is no such thing as a brand life-cycle. Once a leading brand is established with a loyal customer base, there is no reason why that position cannot be maintained almost indefinitely. Brands are larger than products. They can be updated regularly and altered in almost any aspect to maintain their relevance to the market. As long as the brand is kept up to date there is no reason why it should not live forever.

This does not mean that brands will live forever, just that they may be able to if properly managed and looked after. There are examples of brands which have disappeared or run into trouble. One distinguished brand which has been in existence in the UK since 1894 — Marks & Spencer, a retail store selling clothing, home furnishings and food — went through difficult times in the late 1990s. Brands which have been around for over 60 years and show no signs of disappearing. All purchase decisions involve an element of risk, and buying behaviour shows that the drive for something well-known and trusted is often stronger than the drive for novelty.
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We have mentioned brand names a few times. We said that a brand name can be a good way of differentiating a product. Brands which are well known and trusted can serve as a shortcut for consumers trying to choose between competing offers.

​If two products are similar, customers are more likely to buy the product with the brand name they know, rather than the one they have not heard of. 

An interesting example of how important brand image is can be seen from taste tests carried out by Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. Respondents were asked to decide which of the two cola drinks the cola drinks they preferred. 

When they were allowed to see the brand of the drink there was a marked preference for Coca-Cola — 65 per cent preferred it. However, when the respondents were blindfolded the distinction between the two brands was reduced significantly. In this test 51 per cent of testers preferred Pepsi. 

The differences between the two sets of results suggest that customers ‘taste’ both the drink and the brand image. The brand image adds value to the product or service in the mind of the customer. When they see the familiar Coca-Cola package and logo, value is added on an emotional level.

Branding can provide benefits for both buyers and sellers. Customers benefit because they can immediately identify specific products that they do and do not like. 

Without brands, product selection would be quite random, with customers having to read the packaging every time to find out about each product and how it matched with what they wanted. This benefit of branding is the reason so many companies use an existing brand name for a new product. They hope that the values which attach to the brand name will attach to the new product in the mind of the customer and make them more likely to purchase it. 

Sellers also benefit because branding makes repeat purchasing easier for customers, which in turn may lead to brand loyalty, something all companies try to engender. Creating brand loyalty also permits companies to charge a premium price for a product. 

For example, the manufacturers of Nurofen, a pain-relieving product, charge more than the manufacturers of generic products which use the same active ingredient (ibuprofen).

However, these benefits do not come free. Brand owners will spend large amounts of money on advertising their brands. For example, Coca-Cola spends over £12m a year in the UK on advertising, and Andrex (toilet tissue) over £8m. 

One of the outcomes of this high spending for Andrex is that the brand is linked to the advertising symbol used — a Golden Labrador puppy. The attributes of the puppy — softness, gentleness — are attached to the product itself.

This outcome also allows Andrex to link its name with a charity, Guide Dogs for the Blind. This works well, as this type of dog is a popular choice of guide dog in the UK.

Today’s great brands have their own identity. If you ask someone to describe a brand they will usually use adjectives to describe its qualities. Branding is to do with the way customers perceive products, not just about the name or the symbol associated with a brand. ​
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Last week we looked at how to identify the different attributes within a product and how to use this knowledge to develop a product which will be attractive to customers.

This week we finish off looking at products features, then we look at the product life cycle and its impact on features.

The augmented product features additional benefits and customer services that have been built around the actual product. These are often added to differentiate it from other offerings. These extra benefits are unlikely to represent the reason for purchase, but may be the reason for choosing one product over another.

For example, a customer might decide to use a particular bank because it offers a higher interest rate on their savings account or because bills can be paid from the account using the Internet or telephone. Another reason might be that it offers more interest if money is left in the account for longer than 12 months. Alternatively, the name and reputation of the bank might give the customer more reassurance than other banks do that their money is safe and problems will be rectified.

Product life-cycles

So far we have been talking about products as though they were fixed and immutable. We have discussed the three levels of a product — core, actual and augmented — and allocated different aspects of the product to each of them.

However, products are not immutable. What differentiates a product from its competitors in one year may not do so in another. A product which has been developed and introduces a unique feature will eventually be copied by competitors, or even improved on and surpassed.

The transitory nature of the uniqueness of product features means that it is important to develop a brand name which customers will trust even if the product itself changes over time.

For example, clothes may be fashionable only for one season, yet the designer houses that produce the clothes retain their relevance for the customer over a number of seasons and years. In this case, it is the designer name which is the brand and which encourages customers to carry on buying the clothes.

When a product with a new feature is introduced, competitors look at what has changed and whether it is successful. If it is, they will introduce that feature into their own products. Customers will then start to see a range of products with this particular feature and, if they perceive it as worthwhile, they will start to expect all products to have it. Once this happens, the feature ceases to differentiate the product.

In other words, it moves from the augmented level to the actual product level.

For example, in the USA all new cars come with airbags, usually for the driver and the passenger, and some manufacturers are now introducing side airbags as well. In the early 1990s very few manufacturers fitted airbags, yet now they have almost become a requirement. Not to have airbags would preclude manufacturers from competing at all.

So products will change and develop over time in response to customers’ needs and competitors’ activity, and some products will disappear altogether. They may be replaced by new and better products, or just withdrawn from the market. The Rubik’s cube puzzle was popular at one time.

However, once the puzzle was solved, there was little point in buying another one. The slide rule was bought by most schoolchildren (or their parents) up to about 30 years ago, but has since been replaced by the pocket calculator. It is still possible to buy slide rules, but they are much less popular now.

One way of examining the particular phases most products go through is to use the idea of a product life-cycle. This also demonstrates the likely financial implications as a product moves through the various stages of the cycle:

Phase 1 — introduction. Customers are wary because new products are often costly or have teething problems, so people may prefer to stay with familiar products rather than take risks. Sales are slow and restricted to those who want — and can afford — to try out innovations.

Phase 2 — growth. People begin to understand the benefits; the product has been tested and is more reliable and more available. Sales start to grow and competitors may enter the market, creating even more interest in and awareness of the product.

Phase 3 — maturity. At this stage, almost everyone who wants the product has got it; cautious people are buying now and others are updating their models. In the case of fast-moving goods, sales have settled down to a steady number of regular purchasers, with few people discovering the product for the first time.

Phase 4 - decline. Overall sales are declining, price wars may have broken out and new products are coming along as substitutes. There are too many competitors and firms may start to leave the marketplace.

With a fashionable product such as the Rubik’s cube this whole cycle can happen in the space of one or two years. With products which are less susceptible to fashion trends, such as Coca-Cola or garden fertiliser, the cycle may stretch over many decades.

Products can be given a facelift from time to time with new packaging or a promotional campaign to try to keep them in the mature stage of their cycle. These efforts remind customers and potential customers that the goods are still on the market and reassure them about quality and reliability.

Often products are phased out when income ceases to cover variable costs, or when sales fall below an acceptable level. This can happen in both the private and public sectors and when it does, it is more beneficial to invest the money in developing further new products.

However, there are examples of products which have entered a new growth phase: the glassware company Waterford Crystal nearly failed completely, but was rejuvenated by means of a successful marketing strategy.

In some instances, products have an expected or a natural life; for example, it is widely accepted that for mass-produced cars the life- cycle of a particular model is five years, after which customers expect new models. However, a loss-making product may continue to be supported if it serves a purpose in the overall product portfolio of the organisation.
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Last week we looked at the whole area of customer needs, and started by looking at products, their features and benefits. 

This week we continue this look in more detail, particularly at how we can identify the different attributes within a product and how to use this knowledge to develop a product which will be attractive to customers.

If we look at the difference between features and benefits, what we generally find is that features are what an organisation provides and benefits are what a customer sees. The organisation has to incorporate particular elements, systems, processes or technologies that will allow the customer to receive a particular benefit.

How the organisation goes about solving a particular problem may be of limited interest to the customer as long as the outcome is what they are looking for. It does not matter to the hairdresser’s customer whether the hairdresser uses a database, a card index or their own memory, as long as they are confident that the hairdresser knows them and what their needs are. The feature is only of importance if it delivers the required benefit.

Internal products
This idea of looking at features and benefit can be applied to products and services that are internal to an organisation. Not all employees are in the front line of product provision. You may provide a product which enables those in contact with external customers to carry out their jobs more efficiently, or you may be even further removed from external customers.

However, the concept of features and benefits is just as important to internal customers as to external ones. Much of what is ‘sold’ internally is likely to be intangible: a service rather than a physical product.

However, we should still think through what benefits are being offered to internal customers. In a company manufacturing textiles, the technical department may keep a library of information on all competing products. This feature provides different benefits to different departments.

For the research and development department, access to the library of information allows it to develop new textiles which are superior to those of the competition. It allows the marketing department to compare the strengths and weaknesses of its own product with those of competitors.

This will help in developing its advertising campaigns. The technical department must be aware of how the other areas are using the information so that it can be sure that its information is held in a way that is usable by all.

A closer look of products
Any product, whether a tangible good or an intangible service, should be assessed in terms of its features and benefits, in order to ensure that it is providing what a customer wants or needs. Looking at features and benefits is a useful way of keeping customers’ needs in mind.

The core product
The core product describes the fundamental reason for wanting to buy the item. In a market where there is a choice of products this is unlikely to be a unique benefit offered by any one product. Instead, it will be a generic description of the core benefit of a number of competitive offerings. For example, the basic benefit of a savings account is that it is a safe place to keep ‘extra’ money or money that is not needed immediately.

This refers back to our discussion of features and benefits. What we are. interested in when identifying the core product is the basic benefit to the customer. Is a film distributor in the business of selling films or entertainment? People do not need films, but they may feel a need for entertainment. A film may meet this need, whether at the cinema or on video or DVD, depending on the particular circumstances of the customer.

The actual product
The actual product describes the key features a customer expects from a product. These are often the minimum required for a product to have any chance of survival in a competitive environment. The actual features expected of a savings account might be access conditions (instant or with a notice period), rate of interest and number of branches.
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Last week we looked at a programme of activities for the implementation of a plan. This week we take a different tack and look at the whole area of customer needs, and start by looking at products, their features and benefits.

In the exchange process which happens whenever an organisation and a customer carry out a transaction, the customer receives not just a tangible good or service but a way to solve a particular problem or fulfil a particular need. People do not need 5mm drill bits; what they really want is 5mm holes. The drill bits are merely one way of getting 5mm holes.

In fact, we could say that people do not really want 5mm holes: they probably want the means to attach something to a wall, and the holes are necessary to achieve this. People do not want washing machines for decoration, but because they want clean clothes and a washing machine is one way of obtaining them.

Taking clothes to a launderette is another way, as is taking them to a cleaning company. Whatever products they choose, people buy them in order to achieve something, not for their own intrinsic beauty or appeal.

Of course, people buy pictures, ornaments and other decorative items for their intrinsic appeal, but even these are often fulfilling other needs or desires, such as decorating a house to provide a particular environment or atmosphere. Other items may be bought as an investment, or because the purchaser feels they say something about him- or herself to friends and relations.

The academic Kotler has defined a product as follows: "A product is anything that can be offered to a market to satisfy a want or need. Products that are marketed include physical goods, services, experiences, events, persons, places, properties, organisations, information and ideas."

​This concurs with our idea that the reason for a product’s existence is to satisfy a want or a need, and also stresses that the term ‘product’ covers anything that is offered by an organisation in exchange for something that a customer has. This idea of exchange is apparent in the definition by Dibb et al.: "Everything's both favourable and unfavourable that is received in an exchange. It is a complexity of tangible and intangible attributes, including functional, social and psychological utilities or benefits."

Here we have the interesting view that customers might get something they do not want in the exchange. At a simple level, this might be because, for example, they buy a particular washing machine but use only three out of the 30 programmes available. There are 27 which are unnecessary or unwanted.

At a more complex level, the customer might buy a car which is sporty and fast and looks beautiful, but comes with a very small storage space. However, they are prepared to compromise because the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Dibb et al. emphasise that a product can be a combination of both tangible and intangible elements. If we accept that anything that is sold is actually solving a problem or satisfying a need, then any commodity, even a tangible one, will have some intangible benefits attached to it.

It is important to recognise that the nature of these intangible benefits will depend on the perception of the customer. For example, one customer might describe an estate car as slow, heavy to handle, ugly and having high petrol consumption, whereas another would describe it as spacious, with lots of room for children and luggage, safe, comfortable and costing little to service.

This emphasises the importance of understanding who your customers are and what they want from your product, that is, what problem they are trying to solve. This definition also points out the complexity of a product and suggests that it is made up of a number of attributes.

Next week we will look in more detail at how we can identify the different attributes within a product and how to use this knowledge to develop a product which will be attractive to customers.
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