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What do customers really want?

November 1st, 2009 / By: / Business, Feature, Management

Perfecting the art of mind reading.

It’s conventional wisdom that in a sluggish economy, what consumers desire more than anything else is a low price. But when business owners in the specialty textiles industry ask themselves the question “What do our customers want from us?,” they’re finding that the answer is not that simple. In fact, the conventional wisdom is misleading—maybe even incorrect.

Certainly customers are buying smaller quantities of goods. But in most cases, they are not gravitating toward lower quality products, say industry members.

“Customers are buying less,” says Nora Norby, MFC, president of Banner Creations Inc., Minneapolis, Minn. “The same customers are ordering the same things, but the size of the jobs has plummeted.”

Bob Helmsing, MFC, vice president of Lawrence Fabric Structures in St. Louis, Mo., has noticed the same thing.

“Pockets have definitely tightened up,” he says. “But we don’t see a cheapening of the product. They’re not buying a lesser model of awning. It’s just that more often they are saying, ‘I don’t need that now. I can wait. I can live without this.’”

Within the industry itself, many customers don’t have the luxury of doing without. If companies need a new heat sealer, they need it— whether they have the money or not.

“Price, in our opinion, isn’t the reason people aren’t buying right now,” says Jeff Sponseller, executive vice president of Miller Weldmaster Corp., Navarre, Ohio. “I ask my sales reps all the time if we could come down on price to close a particular deal, and most of them say ‘Not really.’ Certainly their negotiating position improves, but the sale is really not that much price dependent. Let’s say we were selling a $50,000 machine. They are not going to buy it because it goes to $45,000. They are going to buy it because they need that machine.”

What helps Miller Weldmaster close the sale is partly its quality equipment, but also that the company tries very hard to chart out return on investment (ROI) for its customers. It’s not always the person signing the check who’s purchasing the machine; sometimes a bit of documentation goes a long way toward a capital investment getting approval from the boss. So, too, does creative financing.

“We don’t offer leasing ourselves, but we work with a couple of leasing companies around the country, and we’ll help our customers get financing,” Sponseller explains. “Often it’s not that [the customers] have bad credit. It’s just that they can’t get a lot of money from their bank right that moment, even though they need the machine for their business.”

Shelly Alex, vice president of sales and marketing, Moss Inc., Belfast, Maine, has noticed that some customers can’t commit to purchases until the last minute. What’s most valuable to these buyers is Moss’s ability to respond to orders with a very short lead time. Customers also like it when the company is able to repurpose pieces they’ve already bought—for example, putting a new cover on an existing frame. In a pinch, Moss can even rent them a standard frame and print a custom skin for it.

Discover customers’ wants and needs

Nowadays, few companies can survive by selling to the same customers they’ve always sold to. Salespeople must try to find new potential buyers, ferret out those customers’ wants and needs, and tailor their product presentations accordingly.

“We’ve changed our marketing so that when you come to our Web page, you don’t say what machine you’re looking for, you say what you do,” Sponseller says. “If you make truck tarps, we take you to a page that shows all of the machines that make truck tarps, and highlights why one might work better than another.”

Sometimes what customers want most is to feel they’re being listened to.

“Everything we do is customer-driven,” says Helmsing. “We have never been good at inventing a product and saying, ‘We think this is cool, so let’s go sell it to everybody.’ That’s not who we are. What we do is ask questions. Sometimes someone wants a flagship—an attention-getter that is their emblem in front of their building. Other people just want shade. I think a lot of people refer business to us because we have a reputation for being able to figure it out.”

Almost everyone wants quality, but there’s a catch: Most potential customers lack the industry knowledge to choose the best and most appropriate products for their needs. Sellers must educate these people and make them into more discerning consumers. That’s why Miller Weldmaster spends so much time and effort demonstrating its machines on conference show floors.

“It’s a machine, and our customers want to see it, feel it, touch it, and understand it,” Sponseller says. “I believe if somebody understands how something works, they are more apt to want to buy that machine, or to buy that over the competition. So we concentrate on educating them on how it works, rather than selling against something else.”

All things being equal quality-wise, customers will gravitate toward the lowest price, says marketing consultant and speaker Jack Sims. To make a decision based on quality—which is what they really want to do, in most cases—they need to see that all things are not equal.

Helmsing does this when he helps customers choose between fabric coatings. He provides the education and the product samples, but the customers provide the inspiration.

‘We tend to let the customer dictate,” he says. “We’ll say, ‘Here are a couple of types of coatings. If you pay the extra for this coating, you’ll get this much more warranty.’ A lot of people say right away that it’s not worth it for them. But the next guy will say it is worth it. It all depends whose pocket it’s coming out of, how deep the pocket is, and how first-class they want to be.”

Some brands have developed name recognition and a reputation for quality over time. If your company uses any big-name products that have this sort of cachet, consider using cooperative advertising to take advantage of that.

“That creates trust,” Sims says. “Once the consumer trusts you, they’ll feel more comfortable buying from you.”

Demonstrate your experience and value

Many customers are motivated by experience and stability; they want to know that the job will be done right, and that the vendor will still be around to fix it if something goes wrong. You can demonstrate these qualities by talking about your company’s history and by showing examples of your past work. Another strategy is to obtain third-party certifications, but keep your audience in mind when you choose which ones.

“We play up our quality message, the fact that we’re ISO 9001 and 14001 certified, with a lot of our customers,” says Scott Campbell, president, Rainier Industries, Tukwila, Wash. “The ISO 9001 quality standard is required by a few of our customers. It’s a huge investment—not something where you just go buy a rubber stamp. But for business-to-business, and specifically larger manufacturing for government and military organizations, it’s a very meaningful thing. It’s more attractive than meeting mil spec.”

Norby likes to highlight her company’s affiliation with IFAI and her Master Fabric Craftsman (MFC) certification. “I talk about my expertise,” she says. “I think it gives us credibility with the buying community,” she says. “I know there are plenty of people who’ve heard of me, or who will identify me as being a leader in the industry, just because of hearing about my association with the organization.”

“If customers know the value of it, they will respond to it,” says Sims. “but it’s got to mean something. And again, education is important. Just putting it on an ad or brochure won’t do it. You’ve got to tell them what you learned to get the certification in order to make it of value.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based near Athens, Ga.

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