There might be 31 flavors at your local ice cream shop, but most are just variations of vanilla. It’s really the only place vanilla sells.
In an era where consumers can purchase individual tracks on the iTunes store to make their own playlists and design their own dress shirts delivered to their door, both customization and the customer are king. If you don’t listen to them, someone else will. Now more than ever is a critical time to be connected to your stakeholders to learn and understand what matters most to them.
Walk into virtually any store, look at the shelves and you’ll see products getting lost in a sea of sameness. Ask a clerk to differentiate one product from another and often they can’t. It is said that a confused mind doesn’t buy. A confused mind can’t help sell your product either. This leaves most brands competing on price, which is a race to the bottom and a race virtually everyone loses. Sadly, it’s how must businesses try and compete in every industry.
What can you do to avoid this commoditization trap? One simple thing: hit the road — literally, go on tour. This is the single greatest success strategy I teach my coaching clients. Go on a listening tour visiting all your clients. It’s an idea I got from the Boston Red Sox.
For a number of years right after John Henry’s ownership group took control of the Red Sox, its front office diligently kept its ears to the ground by listening to its most important customers, the fans. At season’s end, front office personnel would travel from Portland to Providence and everywhere in between holding town hall-style events throughout New England. They called it a listening tour.
These listening tours were viewed by Red Sox management as a fundamental operating principle. They would listen to questions, fan feedback and ideas from members of “Red Sox Nation,” who are arguably the most passionate fans in professional sports. Additionally, they fielded comments and questions via webcast and posted the listening tour videos on the team’s website.
Key ideas that have been implemented as a result of listening-tour feedback are gluten-free food vendors, ticket sale policies and incorporating social media into the ballpark experience. This can also be a powerful way you can elevate and separate yourself from the competition.
A company that executes the listening-tour strategy to perfection is Anderson Bean Boot Company. I recently sat down with its general manager, Ryan Vaughan, to discuss how the company differentiates itself from the competition.
Vaughan has created his own version of the listening tour by hiring tech reps to be the eyes and ears on the floor with retailers. They don’t visit the retailers to sell, just to listen and help. Vaughan mentioned that having tech reps visit retailers is very different than simply sending sales reps. A sales rep is typically looking for the next order, whereas the tech reps are listening and helping to find solutions for the retailer. Think of their store visits as reconnaissance missions where they gather intel.
Key questions that get answered on the tour are:
What trends are you noticing in the market?
What’s working for the competition?
What can we do to make it easier for you to sell our boots?
Who are our strongest competitors?
When we lose a sale, who is it usually to?
A great example of listening to problem-solve for the retailer and differentiating as a brand came in the form of creating custom designs for specific retailers. Bold designs that are the farthest thing from vanilla help the individual retailer distinguish itself from local competitors and simultaneously prevents Anderson Bean from becoming commoditized.
The company has taken the listening tour to a higher level by holding what its calls “trunk shows,” where customers can set an appointment to be fitted for a custom pair of boots. This provides the customer the best possible level of in-store service and at the same time shows the retailer what customers really want.
How are you custom tailoring the experience to make it unique and memorable for your customers?
The leadership team at Anderson Bean walks the talk, literally. CEO and co-owner, Traynor Evans, walks the factory floor every day and stops to listen to his employees. The management offices are deliberately located inside the factory as opposed to next door for the very same reason, to be accessible and listen closely.
When was the last time you checked in with your employees to ask for feedback or suggestions to improve their experiences?
Vaughan has also flipped the listening tour on its head by bringing the company’s retailers down to the factory to experience it. They spend two to four days at a time on site in Mercedes, Texas, being shown product, manufacturing and designs. They are entertained during their visit, and at dinner, Vaughan and his team make it a point to simply listen and learn. Many retailers attend the site visit every year.
Back to the Red Sox for a moment, a key point most people outside of professional baseball would miss is that a majority of the listening tour was actually conducted during the team’s busiest time of the year, from Nov. 1 through the holidays. This is the time when player acquisitions happen. Amidst free agency, trades and coaching changes, the Red Sox invest time in getting out and listening to customers. This sends a clear message that they are never too busy to listen to their customers.
Often in business, when we enter our busy season, we develop a bunker mentality and get so busy we forget to invest time in listening. Is a listening tour easy? No. But when you do the hard things the right way you set a solid foundation upon which you can grow.