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Is there any greater waste of time than a poorly done SWOT Analysis?!  As you can tell, I have a rather strong opinion on this topic.  Like many of you, I was trained to use a SWOT analysis as a part of my marketing plan process.  The idea was to get to a great strategy by understanding your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and then come up with a killer marketing strategy that obliterates the competition.

There was only one problem with this decision making and strategy building process — the SWOT analysis we did was nothing more than a stupid list of stuff that didn’t have anything to do with anything at all — it was just a list.

Then one day, I was sharing my frustration with a friend and he showed me a SWOT format that he used that I fell in love with.  The idea was so simple and yet so powerful.  He basically drilled down to the true essence of each SWOT element.

Internal vs External Focus

The first thing he did was make the distinction between the internally focused elements of the SWOT — the Strengths and the Weaknesses, and the externally focused elements of the SWOT — the Opportunities and Threats.  That simple distinction immediately focused our conversations in the right direction.

Specific examples of events that define each element

The next thing he did was ask specific questions that might define what would be perceived of as Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities or Threats.  This helped focus the list on just those attributes that made a difference in the business.

For example, under the “Strengths” category he asked questions such as:

  • What new business did you gain this year?
  • What were the reasons you got that business?

And in the “Weaknesses” category, there would be questions such as:

  • What business did you lose this year?
  • What were the reasons you lost that business?

You get the idea behind this process — be specific and real strengths and weaknesses will reveal themselves.

But what if we were to take this process one step further?  What if we were to take these questions that we asked ourselves and start getting our customers into the mix?


How to bring your customers into your decision-making process

Usually, organizations will use customer satisfaction research or other customer research they’ve collected as part of their market planning process.  The most common way I’ve seen it done is to take research we’ve done that has had other objectives and use that information to supplement our planning.

I’m not so sure that was a good idea.  These days I believe that a better process is to create a series of customer research surveys with the objective of collecting information that you can use to guide your decision making and marketing plans.

  1. Start with a customer list.  It’s always a good idea to create a list of customer respondents and emails to start with.
  2. Supplement the list with demographic profile information that you specify as a custom field such as industry, customer type, products purchased, etc.
  3. Conduct some qualitative research to uncover what’s important to your customer when they are buying what you are selling.  You can ask open ended questions and then tighten those up with some specific attributes that play a critical role in how customers choose to purchase your products or services.  I feel like I have to point out that you need to be specific.  Don’t simply say “price” — this is useless.  Use criteria such as “walking distance from my home” as an example.
  4. Do several short surveys to gauge what your customers see as your strengths.  This could be as simple as creating a list of strengths and asking if they describe your company, with the answer options being Yes/No (you can also include an NA).  While scales are often a default question type, I prefer simple yes/no answers to these kinds of questions because they force customers to choose one and not just  use neutral ratings.  The only suggestion I would give here is to carefully craft how you word your strength phrases so that you don’t have people feeling ambiguous.  For example:  high-tech, friendly staff, location, good value.  Notice how each of these attributes is referencing a specific area of the company.  I didn’t mix friendly staff and customer service — those are too similar.  Also, be sure to list elements that you think are your weaknesses or that you aren’t sure you do well and see if your customers agree.
  5. Ask customers about external influences.  Remember that opportunities and threats are also a component of your SWOT and you can survey your customers to find out how the opportunities and threats that you perceive impact them.  Do they have similar opportunities and threats or widely different ones?

Overall, the idea is to create a series of surveys that are focused on collecting customer feedback as it relates to the decision-making you will do as part of your marketing plan.  This way, you aren’t just pulling in old surveys meant for other kinds of decisions, you’re actually bringing your customer into your company’s decision-making process – collaborative marketing style.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this!  In what ways have you used customer research to help in developing your marketing plan and making better decisions?

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