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Make customer contact part of research; a better deviled-egg serving trayThe term “marketing myopia” was coined because it is so easy for companies to be “nearsighted” about their marketing.

You may be nearsighted in the sense that you lack perspective because you are too close to your business. (You are to be forgiven for this most human of dilemmas.) You may tend to view your product or service just from your side of the fence. You may overly identify with how hard you work, how difficult your product is to produce, how clever, beautiful, efficient or unique it is.

On the other hand, some companies under-appreciate their product or service. Being on the inside, you may see that it’s "not perfect." You may be overly concerned that competitors offer similar products, or perhaps you're already excited about your Next Great Idea.

The leadership lesson here is the vital importance of achieving an arm’s length distance from your service or product so that you can see it as objectively as possible. Only when you have a relatively objective understanding and appreciation of your offering can you effectively make strategic decisions about how to market it.

There are a number of ways to gain objectivity. One of the  most basic and reliable is getting feedback from your customers or clients, which is the method that will concern us here. This type of market research can fall anywhere on a continuum from formal to informal. You can employ a variety of methods, from structured interviews and surveys to simply asking your most esteemed customers for their opinions while sharing a cup of coffee. The crux of the matter is to determine what type of information you need, the best way to go about getting it and then following through.

Once you are satisfied with the quality of your information, you have the opportunity to apply insight. The following classic formulas apply particularly well to marketing:

Information + Insight = Knowledge.

Knowledge + Experience = Wisdom.

Wisdom + Imagination = Genius.

And that should be your aspiration in order to develop truly effective marketing strategies. The key is gaining perspective and objectivity through feedback, using the information intelligently and then adding the spark of creativity and imagination. In a challenging economy, mastering the art of marketing is even more critical to business success than it is during thriving times.

During a visit to one of my clients, Corrick’s in downtown Santa Rosa, a fortuitous conversation offered a great illustration of how one company stays in touch with its customers. Corrick's, a gift and stationery store now in its fourth generation as a family business, was hosting a personal signing of Wilton Armetale serving pieces by Fred Wilton, formerly president of the company and now chairman of the board. Talking with Mr. Wilton about his company, I learned that Wilton Armetale is also a family business, founded as a metal casting company in 1892. Fred’s father, Ralph Wilton, created its unique non-toxic, food-safe alloy line of metal serving pieces over 40 years ago when a friend asked him to develop some pieces for his new restaurant in New York. Their manufacturing company is located in Lancaster County, Pa., and has 120 employees.

Mr. Wilton explained that the reason he and his wife, Gay, do these special events is because they have learned it’s the best way to get first-hand feedback from customers. As owners, they were so involved with the day-to-day business problems that they had realized the risk of becoming too insulated and losing touch with their customers. (Another great leadership lesson – getting out of the office to see for yourself.)

“We sell in three different markets: department stores, big box stores and independent retailers like Corrick’s,” he said.  “We decided to do something special for our independents and to build our business with them, because they have the best connection with our consumers. They take your feedback and understand what your wants and needs are. The independents have so much interest in their customers, in customer service and consequently, they have customer loyalty. We have great sales reps who give us a lot of information, but there’s no substitute for getting information first-hand. We learn where our customers think we should be going in terms of design and function. We take what we hear and translate that into products.

"Our deviled-egg serving tray is now one of our best selling pieces, and that suggestion came from a customer. We all have read the books that say ‘stay close to your customer,’ but you tell yourself you’re too busy or that you’ve heard it before. But if you don’t keep your customers happy, you may as well forget it.”

Fred Wilton’s insights illustrate the value of doing research by getting out to your customers, talking with them face to face and listening to what they have to say (while taking good care of your valued distributors at the same time.)

And it also illustrates another leadership principle: Top management's role needs to include maintaining some first-hand contact with customers. It’s a great example of how to minimize marketing myopia. So put on your marketing specs, do your research and be prepared to look at things in a new way. As Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

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Mary Luttrell helps companies turn challenges into opportunities and resolve complicated problems and dilemmas. She is known for her ability to create inspired, yet practical, plans of action.  She is a specialist in strategic planning, marketing, performance management, meeting and retreat facilitation, leadership coaching and mentoring. With over 25 years of consulting experience, Ms. Luttrell is a certified management consultant whose firm was named one of the 100 Leading Management Consulting Firms in North America by industry analyst James Kennedy.  To receive a complimentary copy of her whitepaper, "The Four Cornerstones of Business Success," contact Ms. Luttrell:  the coach@sonic.net or 707-887-2256.