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LOOK TO THE FUTURE – How can businesses foresee and implement what their customers want, asks Sanjay Bhalla

Apple has just become the world’s first Trillion Dollar public company. It was only momentary, but it must have been good to be a part of that company, even if just for that moment. It is one of a sea of companies that have changed business fundamentally. In a business market where the biggest retailer doesn’t own a store, the biggest hotel company doesn’t own a hotel and the biggest taxi company doesn’t own a taxi, we are seeing a change to the business environment never seen before.

The promotional merchandise industry has its own shining stars and those that have enjoyed success over the years. All of them contribute to the successful, growing industry it is today and have brought about change. The challenge is how to keep up with that change. I believe the first place to start is to learn what we need to change and that comes from knowing our customers. You can send out surveys, questionnaires and other means to capture customer feedback, but by far the most effective is speaking to the customer.

Customer facing Engaging with customers over the phone, face to face or even by Facetime allows us to understand them. With every interaction with the customer, we can learn a little bit more. If we do this as a team and each person in the business works together ,a lot can be learnt. There needs to be a combined effort, a unified approach to this to really make it effective. There isa Japanese concept of Kaizen, which some people call ‘CAN I’ and which stands for Constant And Never-ending Innovation.

Essentially it is a commitment to making small changes to working practices frequently but over a long period of time, with the aim of improving quality, efficiency and performance. This incremental approach to business can be very useful and allow us all to work on the business together.

An area where we can start that is common for the company is to know the customer. It is from here that it is possible to build our plans – after all it is the customer that is spending the money. By being collectively as a company in a state of Constant And Never-ending Innovation takes least input (as it is shared) and has the potential to return the most.

In the example of focusing on the customer, the outcome in this specific task of “CAN I know more about my customer?” is that we take time to understand the customer, learn the market and know which way we need to go. Gradual improvement Even when there is a shared goal and a long-term vision, it is not always possible to get everyone working together asateam. But making those small incremental changes frequently, over time will achieve the goal.

Posing the concept of CAN I to the team helps make that happen. In the process of starting to know the customer, it is essential to ask those on the frontline of the business to engage with the customer and learn what it is that they want and what they need. Start by allocating each person in the business with an individual question about the business. One person might have something like “Why did you choose to order with us?” After a week, sit down together and review the feedback and answers – that becomes the basis of the plan.

Having had everyone take part in the gathering of information, everyone will buy into helping execute the plan. With a CAN I attitude, the team members will not only work in the company, they will work on behalf of the company to bring about change. I think back to a recent BPMA event. A panel took questions from the industry and what was apparent was that there was no one size fits all approach to their businesses. What was common was the need to know your customer, know your market and build your business around that.

Understanding the market can come from everyone having an input, contributing to what the changes need to be and then taking the small incremental steps that lead to overall improvement. The question of CAN I soon becomes WE DID.

Sanjay Bhalla is managing director of Promo Trade.

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