Accelerate Business Faster – Build Strategic Customer Assessments Now – Overview

By Thomas B. Cross


Abstract: The idea of thought-leadership hits home to my own views of the “compelling argument” which I used in teaching a graduate class at the University of Colorado for nearly a decade. Seriously, what does it take to become a thought leader or “how to” which is the premise of this piece. Certainly, like cooking recipes there will be many, many ways how to be a thought leader. If, as others suggest that thought- leadership is really what marketing should be, then explore what some of the key elements are in creating and maintaining it. Also, if becoming a thought leader rings a bell with those who struggle with how to do marketing at all, then so be it and so here goes.

Premise: The focus of this article is to use an approach called a strategic customer assessment to provide the basis for becoming a thought leader or rather building “thought content” or if you prefer “thoughtful content.” That is, there are far too many white papers, articles, case studies and other content pieces that focus on a particular mission, task, POV- point of view to promote and sell products or services. The process of building thought content to demonstrate your ability as a thought leader is the process of analysis and presenting a topic in a “why should I care about this” approach. People care about so many things; it is often hard to get their attention to your particular plight or point-of-view (POV). Thirty years ago, I was quoted in Lotus Magazine and I compared a particular technology to sex. Not surprisingly it was the “most read” article in the entire issue. Spring forward to this week, there was a study of successful rock-and-roll songs and those that had the highest number of references to sex were the most popular and likely the most profitable. No doubt certain products like fashion, beauty, health, even cars and others can be embellished with sex, however, many of the products that you market would be ill-received or even litigated if there were such inferences. Armed without the use of sex, what are you left with? Pain is often used to describe a particular situation which motivates a buyer to consider or acquire your product. Finding the customers pain is particularly a great challenge and it represents the opportunity to make a difference in the life of your customer.

The approach from my class and from other research in building strategic customer assessments is what I call Crossnetpoints. Crossnetpoints is a systematic evaluation of ten key factors and presenting the findings in a means for action and deliberation. Focused on key customer trends, uses, mobile applications, technology and vision, strategic assessment they are designed to yield specific corporate tactical and strategic strengths and weaknesses. Once completed, specific tasks, functions, organizational, marketing, operational and technical tasks will be created. Certainly, you can build your own cube, circle or other shape, concept, theory to fit your own thought leadership approach. There are many really cool ideas build your own is always a good approach

This is the CrossNetPoints Strategic Customer Model before Assessment, results are also shown later in this article. The point is to look at the ten “points” and evaluate your own company, market, personal or product position in terms of thought leadership. Through this process you can see areas in need of improvement or leadership. The 10 CrossNetPoints are: customers, content, channels media, channels distribution, connections, communications, collaboration, call to actions, crisis and coming sooner.

Here are the Top-10 Areas of Focus in a Strategic Customer Assessments:

NOTE: Each assessment is unique to the customer and hence these comments are designed to provide an introduction, not indepth analysis of each topic.

1 – Customer – customer now and always be about the customer. It is now and will always be about the customer whether direct, OEM-original/white/private label equipment manufacturer, channel, VAR, street, retail, wholesale, online, door-to-door, food truck or farmer’s market. The simplest way to understand customer is that if you are not talking, being with, helping with your customers, your competitor will be. Or worse, customers will do nothing, not buy anything, think ill-will of you or and the absolutely worse possibility is to not think about you at all.

If you don’t know anything about your customer or would-be customer, then go ask them and not, as a focus group, just as individual people. Rather, ask them as individual unique and most-valued people as well, not just customers. What do they like, dislike, want improved upon and what-when they want to buy next? Everything that follows in this paper “circles back,” intersects or crosses back to the customer. The process is to really understand not through a series of True-False, Multiple Question or even focus groups, what the customer is saying. You will often be surprised to find the difference between what they tell you what they mean is often completely different. I have personally found this to be true more times than not. Oddly in a thought leadership world, we often forget that the real thought leaders are our customers, we are more than just Jimmy Olsen’s reporting the news back to Perry White and hopefully reporting accurately. However, what thought leadership could also be is something also of my own persuasion; you cannot react to trends, you cannot predict them either, you must direct your customers to your own strategy. IBM, Apple, Starbucks and so many others epitomize this in the way their listen and build but also extend their products as to where they both want the customer to go and also the customer wants to go there already. Therefore, truly great thought leadership is a thorough understanding, almost reading the mind of the customers and then building a platform on which to create successful solutions for them. As a result, you will become the thought leader they look at, listen to and want more from.

Assessment Process: Contact ten or more customers (including channel partners) at their location, not with survey’s or focus group but individually and personally by a senior consultant. That is, go see them and listen to what they have to say and most importantly, not sell them anything. Ask about what they like, want improved but this is not a selling meeting but an information gathering session. After analysis of interviews you will be in a better position to determine their present and future needs.

2 – Content – is simply the words, images, videos, virtual, AI, algorithms, ideas, AI abstractions or messages you use to communicate to the customer. Brand is the concept/image you present to them and will address that in a moment. Content or in this context thought leadership is the message, the way you use the message and the way, the customer uses and thinks about what you are saying is the meaning of content. “The British are Coming,” “Four score and seven years ago” sets the tone as an introduction to the message and “shall not perish from the earth” sets the tone for the end of the message. Your job is to say something like “Never was so much owed by so many to so few” and be as remembered by so many who have read these most famous citations. Thought leadership in the form of content development explores the way management (C-level, full-disclosure, community and leadership), organizational (uses in web, print, etc.), distribution (via media channels and channel partners) and diffusion (common understanding and experience) uses information critical to “lift all boats” and ensuring common understanding by all involved.

Assessment Process: Review and evaluate all relevant content in use and under development. The approach is to take an independent view “outside the forest” or if you prefer “not out of the box but rather what’s a box?” approach to analyze messages and determine key words/tags that are used internally and externally to develop “model messages.” Step back from who you are your company, industry and look at what you are saying if you just landed from outer space. The benefits of doing this are illustrated in the example of one company that used a term so ingrained to them they didn’t realize the industry had moved passed the term and customers really didn’t understand what the term actually meant. In order to be thought leader, you need to also look over the mountains and see what is beyond. If you built your own super Ultra AI competitive intelligence system as one customer put it “Ultra would have told us that” . . . the enemy have this time prevented us from knowing enough about them; but we have not prevented them from knowing far too much about us.”

The following and others are examples of findings after the Assessment. Assessment findings show Acceptable performance levels and Alert areas for improvement.

3 – Channels Media – Once was used to mean TV, radio, print, yellow pages and other traditional means. Now it means social, newsfeed, stream, websites, search and hundreds of other virtual channels. It may not be easy but some of you may remember the days when there were just three broadcast networks. Now there are literally millions of broadcast sources with their own YouTube channel. The good news is you can have your own news channel such as would be in Ultra and your own news anchor team too. The bad news is that you have to produce then news or thoughts to get and keep the attention of the viewers. The key point is that media channels are not like other media channels. They are “your” channels and you need to get into the act as their channel media master. Of course, you only have one second to capture the attention of the viewer so use the time carefully. One more thing, if you don’t have good content and production, you video won’t go viral and you will get bad reviews like any Hollywood movie and just as harsh. Take a look at the movies on iTunes and you will find the vast majority receive four “rotten tomatoes.”

Before you embark on thinking you are going to be a movie star or movie director let me remind of this simple but profound statement, “If you are boring face-to-face, you are still going to be boring via teleconferencing.” This really means that people will ignore what you have to say if you don’t look good as well. As the esteemed journalist, Jim Lehrer said on Jon Stewart, “candidates who don’t pay attention to what they look like or what their body language is, as well as their spoken language, are making a terrible mistake.” Embarking on becoming a thought leader requires that you increasingly “look the part, not just play the part.” That is, you may need some “image training” as well as content training. Also, in case you also forgot, the written word is not the spoken word. Last, rehearse, rehearse and rehearse again. I have worked with so many C-levels who think they can do it right on the “first take.” I send them and tell them to rehearse in front of a mirror and they come back the next and seriously they do it in “one take.” There is also much to do about “getting” followers-viewers and “engaging” the viewer, it should also be not “disengaging” the viewer.

Measuring those unsubscribing or unfollowing from your newsletter, video, podcast or channel should be as important as measuring adding new viewers. That is, if your content is really good, the world will share it or tell all their friends if it’s awful. Seriously, you don’t want everyone; you want everyone you need to accomplish your mission.

Assessment Process: While social media is the new “buzz” term for marketing and there are those who actually suggest that the term “marketing” to not be used at all or as Brad believe marketing makes him “throw up a little.” Every company has traditional marketing activities like billboards or coffee cups, even the oldest marketing concept – word-of- mouth. They may also perceive that the new social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter etc.) as the hot-cool trend then need to jump into. However, it’s through an analysis of the customer interviews will determine what channel should be used and when. Your assessment will present recommendations on which social media channels work for your customers. Thought leadership should be the persistent, consistent and often thought-provoking contribution to blogs, Ultra, Facebook and industry publications and journals. Like concept of London’s Hyde Park Corner, if you are not talking, then the people (customers) are listening to someone else.

4 – Channels Distribution – you cannot ever do anything alone, and the more you do it with others the more you will find you are not alone and the more customers you will reach and the more you think you with others, as you are not alone in the channel. Channel partner programs extend and enhance everything you do, if you know what you are doing. Creating, facilitating and building partners are a critical part of strategic customer relation. Channel partners or missionaries extend your thought leadership in places where you can’t always go and in ways you often need. However, untrained or ill-informed you are better off foregoing these opportunities.

Assessment Process: Every company markets through others (including recommendations by friends). How these channels are organized, function and managed is the focus of this phase. Evaluating current or new channel partner programs always uncovers opportunities and improvements. However, what are you doing to help your channel partners with “rip products off their shelves” rather than just languish. That is, channel partners don’t want more products they want products from providers who target and drive customers to them.

5 – Connections – the means for networking with other businesses, industry, government and others – you may wonder why mobile apps are on this list at all. Like matchbooks years ago, mobile apps extend content, brand, and everything else to the customer. Rather than relying on customers coming to you, apps bring you to them. In other words, you bring thought leadership to them. Apps are simple, complicated, fun, foolish or just the means to show you are “with it” or cool. For a few thousand dollars or more, you can get going on a mobile app and then keep adding features as you find interest. And, if you still don’t understand why you should do this, there are now more people accessing customers and content via mobile devices than PCs. We are now in the post-PC era, so get on with it and 

6 – Communications (technology) – the unique organization processes that occur between companies and customers. Digital meetings and enhanced communication technology is all and everything you do to bring everything to and from the customer as well as all the communications transactions along the way. Physical distribution comes to mind but it is not moving matter but it is about the connecting with the minds of the customer. Thought leadership means distributing content in all kinds of ways like YouTube mentioned above but don’t wait for YouTube, your website is one of the greatest ways to get your own message distributed. In fact, if you look at what Chanel, D&G, Coca Cola, GM and other market leaders are doing, they are turning their websites into their own media hubs, portals and their own channels. They want to the thought leader in their marketspace so why send them to another place such as Facebook, etc. Using search engine optimization, customers and prospective customers seek them out. This is not at odds with the above in pushing media out via apps; it recognizes that it is an inbound and outbound process. 

Assessment Process: This is not an assessment of all content and digital media technology. This assessment simply focuses on how easily or not customers can contact and be processed through sales, supporting, billing or other corporate activities. That is, what is the “customer experience” encountered by all types of customers; omnichannel, small, large, channel, strategic, investors or others?

7 – Collaboration – organizational thought leadership for content development and delivery processes. Everyone in the organization should be part of the thought content development and delivery process. Every employee has the ability to influence or potentially customer behavior in a good or bad way. It has always amazed me how many employees don’t know anything about the business they work or. Every employee should have the “elevator pitch” on the back of their business cards just to remind them and share with customers what they do.

Content development is a vast and complex process. However, it is the real job of management to design an organization that works for customers. It’s a funny thing that as the organization grows, the focus moves from external to internal until the organization is so large “it” doesn’t really care about the customers at all.Assessment Process: Essentially, every company has fundamental organizational communications flaws. Everyone has said, “They don’t feel involved” in the company communications process flow. Certainly, every person in the company cannot communicate every aspect of the business to everyone else, however the assessment is about how, not what, is being communicated. What internal “organizational marketing” communications technologies (and they are far too many already, however, having implement one in a Fortune 100 company, they can often fail because most organizations are designed around traditional top-to-bottom communications patters and not ready for this new approach) are in place or what needs to be implemented is one of the items in the assessment report.

8 – Call to Actions (brand) – drives behavior without which nothing happens. Often using with branding both are very traditional terms and yet a very real term that says who you are. You can name on your hands and toes the really great brands of all times including those that have risen and fallen as well as those that did not exist a decade ago are now on the forefront of your mind today. Find, focus and drive your brand in every way and on everything you do no matter what. If you forget your brand, your customers will forget you. Design your thought leadership around your brand and educate customers as to the reasons why they should know more about the company.

Assessment Process: Brand is how customers “visualize” the company. Brand is very important to all and we can all “name-names” of company brands that mean the most and we as customer can do little else but run and buy. The assessment will evaluate the current and potentially proposed brands. Thought leadership is about how to use, extend or play the brand with customers. The goal is to show the customer that they see the brand and associate it with thought leadership, not just a logo or image. This is a cautionary approach as brands may not always lend themselves to thought leadership, however, in tandem they can work together to make the brand even stronger.

9 – Crisis (random) – chaos, buzz, glitz, squawk, gossip, glam and anything else you can do to get a random quote used or exposed somewhere famous is also a key “random” factor. If you could get “so-in-so” to mention your brand on their TV, radio, Twitter as a failed with rampant haters and shamers driving user behaviors in a negative direction. However, having a news feed or presence is often more important than all the money you spend on marketing. RT-retweeting, sharing, forwarding, mentioning has often has more of an influence than all the sales calls you will ever make. However, thought leadership is using content to create your company as the “go to source” for all things in your marketspace. In this way, you minimize the “gossip factor” and maximize the credibility factor. As one blogger recently pointed out was a comment from a CEO, “My biggest concern with participating in social media is that we’ll somehow provoke a crisis.” Having managed crisis conditions and seen others do it, you take control over the media, not just message and continuously drive the message to the result. BP in the Gulf is a great example of how not do to thought-leadership. The real lesson is did you learn that lesson.

Assessment Process: There is always something in life that is random and chaotic. Ideas, gossip, chitchat, prattle, chatter, and people say things that more often have profound negative impressions, you need to be prepared for the worst by being at your very best full-time, not just part-time. In the assessment process, we will explore any random results and present some random ideas for consideration. One key approach is to delete all social media accounts and build your own Ultra separate internal and external social networks instead of all the toxic nonsense, mis/disinformation (anti-vaxers), weaponized media, cyberbullies, shamers, haters, privacy violations, fake and deep fake which you cannot predict, you cannot react to all of this, you can only direct your own messaging. By building your own 7×24 Ultra emergency management team aka crisis response reputation management team you can rapidly address situations such as Boeing 737Max (internal), Target (terrorism and internal), Wells Fargo (both), BP (internal), Chipotle (unknown) and other corporate devastating consequences with 7×24 realtime “live” updates and demonstrating customer concern.

10 – Coming Sooner – the race to zero and competition is not just coming soon but sooner. Strategically, you cannot not react to trends, you cannot predict them either, you can only direct customers to your vision or strategy. Thought leadership is quite simply that strategy. There’s a device likely in your hand that has been directed to you by a company with the name of a fruit. Vision can bring ideas to reality, simply, quickly and most importantly personally. One simple example was that the music player market was already flooded with portable audio players. The fruit company created not just another device but a system for buying and organizing your tunes. Then they created their devices in “pastel” which appealed to all kinds of users not just one demographic type. Then they said, why should you have to carry two devices one for tunes and one for phone, why not just one device and the rest is simply history as they say. All from a company who was year before not thought of as player in the phone business. Vision is and will always be the directing factor in your success. Everyone demands vision and leadership such as found in Tesla, Amazon and others.

Assessment Process: Vision is also the internal side of brand. Vision is something for investors, staff, analyst meetings and press conferences. Vision provides “guidance” to the C-level, board and others to the destination. Vision is a powerful process and is the “juice” to guide staff, if communicated effectively, understood by staff and most importantly is acted upon. With vision comes action that is understood, “our toys are the best in the world” which can be used by everyone. All too often employees have no idea what the company does and what the vision is.

Summary – Strategic customer’s assessments have been used successful for more than twenty years in thought leadership settings. They have worked in developing and delivering a strategy for successful content marketing campaigns, software products, corporate office parks, educational strategy for colleges and universities in 10 states, a highly successful corporate economic development model, global AI research center, an machine-learning capital expenditure (CAPEX) forecasting saving literally hundreds of millions, building a nationwide channel partner strategy and others. All these strategies resulted from being the thought leader in these markets. These business models can now be replicated faster, easier and more effectively with new social media tools and methods. We urge you to do your own strategic customer assessment or get our helping in doing it not for you but with you

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