Just Be Quiet and Listen

I once worked for a client running a marketing training programme for its key brand managers.

Day one was all about market orientation. In the morning we talked about the barriers between a company and its customers and how, as marketers, we must remove them to build market orientation. In the afternoon I sprang a surprise. We had arranged for focus groups to be recruited at a facility nearby and the marketers had to plan, conduct and analyse some of these and report their results the next day.

It was great on paper, but we ran into a snag. The research company we had hired to run the groups was not keen on the idea of having brand managers with no formal training running their own focus-group sessions. It suggested we should use its professional moderators instead.

Worse was to follow; the head of marketing at the client company agreed. So, rather than illustrating how easy and valuable it was to listen directly to consumers, we demonstrated the exact opposite. My brand managers ended up briefing a researcher and then watching the results from behind one-way glass. Just when you think you have met the prime directive of marketing and got a marketer face to face with customers, another barrier springs up to separate them.

The idea of professional focus-group moderators is a joke. I must have sat through more than 100 groups and the only ones I have ever seen ruined by the moderator were handled by the 'professionals', not by a brand manager keen to run his or her own groups.

One of the first things MA students learn on a research-methods course is the power of the human-research instrument in qualitative research. While we may need computer analysis to make sense of quantitative data, we can rely on a far more complex system for qual data - the mind. We all possess the fundamental ability to make sense of meaning, so anyone can make sense of a focus group, as long as they can learn to shut up and use the skills God gave us.

Even if professional moderators were superior to brand managers, I would still recommend that the manager runs the groups. Any meagre advantage of experience is greatly outweighed by being directly in touch with your customers. Sadly, in many cases, the real reason we have professional moderators is that many marketers do not have the time to run or attend focus groups. Shame on them. There is nothing more important than interacting directly and often with customers.

There is a tragic inverse relationship in most UK firms between decision-making power and degree of customer orientation. As senior marketers get promoted, their ability to influence strategy grows while their knowledge of the customer base declines. Too many of them spend their days issuing orders, and not enough time listening to customers.

Thirty years ago, Charles Saatchi used to judge the quality of his agency's creative work with one of two words: 's**t' or 'brilliant'. The same can be said for many of today's marketers, but it can be very difficult to ascertain which is which in the complex world of marketing.

One of the easiest ways to separate the excellent from the effluent is to pose a simple question: when was the last time you met with customers, shut up and listened? It is our prime directive. Long before we get to build brand or commission communications or segment markets, first we have to listen to customers. So I ask again, when was the last time you personally listened?