The Problem with Virtual Connections and Customer Intimacy

The internet has revolutionized just about everything – personal communications, mass media, commerce, even market research – by providing access to troves of information about companies, materials, and challenges at an unprecedented scale. Newry itself has benefited considerably from these developments: our SONAR™ process, which leverages data science techniques to spot valuable and technically complex problems for our clients to solve, simply would not be possible without broadband access. Thanks to our internet service provider, the FCC, and miles upon miles of fiber-optic cable, however, we routinely crunch terabyte datasets without ever having to leave the warmth and comfort of our snug little Lakewood office.

But with the digital/virtual revolution has come an unexpected downside – namely, “the shallows,” so called by author Nicholas Carr in his Pulitzer finalist book What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain. Carr asserts that the internet, and its associated hyperlinked access and frenetic 140-character nature, has caused us to accept or even desire superficiality. We’re satisfied with a text instead of a phone call; an email instead of a thoughtful letter; a tweet instead of a speech. Our ability to focus has been diminished, he claims, as has our ability to explore a single topic deeply.

This trend is troubling in many ways and for many audiences, but few more so than technical materials and component innovators. As products have grown more sophisticated, and material and component requirements more stringent, the need to go deeper, engage more intimately, and explore value more systematically has increased as well. Yet we’re spending more and more time staring at computers, and less and less time in human engagement with real customers. When I walk the hallways of our clients, I see people in their offices peering at screens, working on spreadsheets, reading websites, and answering emails; they are not, as a rule, talking to customers. In fact, even informal phone calls have become rare, and are often seen as intruding on crucial “screen time.”



In some instances, this propensity extends beyond informal company culture and into established business development processes. For example, several of our clients routinely evaluate early-stage opportunities using quick opportunity assessments meant to be completed by relatively junior technical or NBD folks within a couple of weeks. These documents are generally thoughtful and analytically valid, but they’re also usually the result of days of diligent browsing and “desk research” without a single instance of actual customer contact. Thus, these analyses often provide what I call the illusion of rigor rather than its actuality, and can lead managers and executives to make decisions based on imperfect and incomplete information.

Our tendency to go shallower when we should be going deeper is a dangerous one – perhaps even deadly – but also damnably tough to avoid. After all, how can you justify the time and expense of visiting a customer’s facilities when you can read every single piece of their IP online? What’s the point of calling an old contact when their LinkedIn keeps you up to date on their every career move? Why bother someone with questions when you could just Google it instead?

The answer is simple: it doesn’t work as well.

For all the vast stores of information currently available to us, and for all the incredibly powerful data science and machine learning techniques that have been developed to mine those stores, nothing facilitates the transfer of meaningful insight quite as effectively as a face-to-face interaction. In his excellent book on lean innovation, The Startup Owner’s Manual, Steve Blank insists that one of the fundamentals to startup success is “getting out of the building” – in other words, getting off your laptop, or iPhone, or screen; making an appointment; hopping in your car or getting on an airplane; and going to talk to a real, live customer. In a thoughtful hour-long conversation, Blank says, you’ll find out more (if you’re skillful) than in days of “shallow” work.

Our tendency to go shallower when we should be going deeper is a dangerous one – perhaps even deadly.

We’ve seen Steve Blank’s point of view borne out at several of our clients – all successful innovators who are proactively making intimate customer engagement an integral element of their R&D culture. For instance, one of our more ambitious clients recently completed a year-long early-stage marketing effort comprising 5,000 customer interviews in 12 months. That’s right, 5,000. Each of those interviews involved human-to-human contact, many were in person, and many involved hours of international plane travel and non-trivial out-of-pocket expenses. Still, I suspect that each of those time-consuming and ostensibly costly personal interviews was worth a dozen book-report opportunity assessments.

Some companies are re-learning something that they and other innovators knew 50 years ago: if you can’t get out of your building, get customers into yours! Decades ago, IBM had one of the most extraordinary customer-visit facilities on the planet. People came from all over the world to visit their “farm” in upstate New York to learn about computers and systems and meet with top IBM executives (all of whom were experts at customer engagement). Similarly, when I was a pup marketer at Honeywell Information Systems in the mid-1980s, we had 60,000 customer visit days per year to our Phoenix Black Canyon technical facility (which means that, on average, there were about 250 customers somewhere on campus every workday, attending classes, presentations, working on benchmarks, etc.) The admittedly resource-intensive “bring-the-mountain-to-Muhammad” model did fall out of fashion for some time, but these days, we’re seeing certain companies beginning to reinvest in these extraordinary opportunities to engage with customers and find out what really makes them tick.

non-virtual customer intimacy

Other clients are working with scientists and technologists to help them learn customer insight techniques such as how to engage, how to plan a discussion, how to frame effective questions, and how to follow up. Of course, there’s more to customer intimacy than just showing up with a canned set of VOC questions, and some people are just naturally better at it than others. With coaching and experience, though, just about any technical professional has the potential to become decent at engaging with customers – and most of our clients believe it’s a lot easier to help a scientist become reasonably effective at customer engagement that to transform a generalist MBA into a world-class chemical engineer.

Finally, many clients are using consultants like us, not just for an answer to a question, but for access to our networks. Last year, some of the most valuable outcomes Newry delivered weren’t in our deep analytical work (and we did a lot of it), but in the introductions we made between innovators and potential customers. At one leading manufacturer of specialty polymers, an introduction from Newry to a potential customer resulted in a 50-million-dollar order within a couple of months. So, squeeze more juice out of your marketing and strategy consultants – if they’re actively engaging with customers, competitors, suppliers, and thought leaders (which they should be), they can be sources of much more than analysis and reports.

So, big message: Stop counting on the internet as the answer to insight. Follow Steve Blank’s advice and get out of the building and go visit a customer. And make sure guys like us do the same.

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