Being Comfortable With Uncertainty

I once heard a manager proudly tell a new analyst who joined her team that in their business, you have to get comfortable with not having information and making decisions in an environment of great uncertainty. She was not talking about the future and the uncertainty it brings, she was talking about right now. You see, this company did not have good customer or competitor information and over the years she became comfortable with not knowing. She simply assumed that once sales trends were in line with her assumptions, her assumptions about what was happening in the dark were correct. Concepts like coincidence and business cycles never occurred to her. Furthermore, she became adept at convincing others of the same thing and took great pride in the fact that she was comfortable navigating in the dark. After all, it takes a lot of experience to navigate successfully in the dark.

She is not unique. We all seem to accept that we are feeling around in the dark and advise others to get accustomed to not seeing their fingers in front of them. We have become so comfortable with the dark that the light actually scares us. What if the light reveals that we are not where we thought we were? Or that those who we thought were with us have long gone? So we choose to continue operating in the dark, crossing our fingers that we don’t stumble into anything too unpleasant. We actively decide to NOT even turn on a flashlight. I mean, it won’t show us everything anyway, so why bother? Plus, it’s not like we’re uncomfortable.

But does that make sense? Wouldn’t even a little light be better than none at all? Wouldn’t it be better to be sure about a little about your market than nothing at all? Isn’t the investment in a flashlight worth it?

Is who you’re targeting who’s really buying?

OECS

As part of the development of a good marketing strategy, marketers define their target market, i.e. who they are trying to attract through their branding and advertising efforts. Typically, they take their cue from the corporate strategy, which would assume, inter alia, that the products and services being created by the company would be of interest to their chosen market.

My experience, however, suggests that in some cases there’s a difference between who the company is targeting and who is actually purchasing its products/services. Consider, for example, the restaurant that is focused on attracting young families, but instead sells to a significantly larger proportion of single, busy professionals; young families hardly eat there. Or the financial institution that realised that the segment that they thought were purchasing one of their investment products did not own various high-valued assets but simply had excess cash. Or the boutique that targeted young, fashionable twenty-something year olds, but actually sold more to mature, less trend-conscious forty-something year olds.

So, how do you know for sure that who you’re targeting are the ones actually buying?

1. You ask them. Feedback and customer satisfaction surveys from customers should be part of the market intelligence arsenal of any company that is serious about keeping close to their customers. In addition to making sure you’re meeting their expectations, you should take the opportunity to collect basic information (such as demographic information, how they use your products or lifestyle indicators) to confirm that you know who’s buying your products.

2. You observe them. If you have a storefront, social media presence or any other location where you can watch customers interact with your brand and your products and services, you should take some time on a regularly scheduled basis to see for yourself who’s buying, who’s looking but not buying and who’s walking past your displays without even a passing glance. You should also ask your customer-facing team to give you their opinion.

3. You monitor them. If you’re in a position to collect customer data, the resulting database is a trove of extremely valuable insight into your customer base. The only caveat is that you have to be collecting the type of information that would allow you to check whether your target market are your customers. For example, if you’re targeting persons that are health conscious, but only collecting information on gender and age, you’ll never know if your customers are in fact health conscious. Or if you’re targeting persons within a certain income bracket, but you never actually ask your customers for their income (or some proxy of income) when they sign up, you’d never know if you’re right.

4. You listen to them. In many cases, your customers are already talking about you. They’re sharing their experiences with your products and services on social media and radio talk shows. Pay attention to who is talking and who’s responding. While the loud don’t always represent the majority, they often spark conversations that the majority chime in on. It pays to listen.

At a time when every marketing dollar spent has to count, marketers have to understand if their efforts are spurring the type of demand they intend, and, if not, what (if anything) they should do about it. 

Using forecasts and scenarios in strategic planning

One of the biggest travesties to me in strategic planning – yes, I know I’m being dramatic – is that companies do not incorporate economic forecasts and scenarios into their strategic plans.

I don’t count mentioning the outlook in the background section when you’re setting the tone for the rest of your plans. To me, that’s like when you’re interviewing someone and you ask about their education. It’s an ice-breaker. It is only relevant if they’ve learned something practical and can put it to good use in your organisation. Otherwise, you’re just giving them an opportunity to relax a little. Many companies use economic forecasts in the same way: as introductory material to break the ice and help other people relax in the knowledge that they’ve given this a little thought.

Another common use is as an item to check off a list, which happens frequently in institutions where employees have to compile economic indicators and send to their executive team or board of directors. They couldn’t tell you what the numbers mean or what the implications are for their company, but they’ve ticked the box and can happily move on to something else. What’s worse is that often the executives and board of directors also tick the box that says they’ve seen it, and no one discusses what the numbers mean.

Maybe I should be happy that they’re at least doing this bare minimum, but it’s hard to watch when there’s so much more value that can be tapped.

Here are a few ways that our clients have used economic forecasts and scenarios to help ground their strategies:

  • An insurance company used our forecasts of economic growth, unemployment, insurance claims, insurance premiums and new policyholders to adapt their strategic plan immediately following the 2007 global financial crisis. They were able to brace for the economic slowdown in Barbados before it arrived by implementing revenue-enhancing and cost-control measures as a matter of urgency.
  • Our client in the global consumer goods industry was considering expanding their operations into the Caribbean. They hypothesised that the size of the middle class in the Caribbean was growing and could represent a lucrative market. We estimated the size of the middle class and forecasted its growth, which the company then used to select the best countries for investment.
  • Amidst all of the discussion about potential downgrades to the Barbados dollar and further austerity measures, our client in the financial services industry commissioned an economic scenario building exercise to investigate the impact of various options being debated in the press. The resulting discussion included senior leaders and was designed to ensure that each area within the organisation understood the likelihood and potential impact of each scenario.

There are many other ways that economic forecasts and scenarios can be used in companies. The most important thing to remember is that your organisation does not operate in a bubble; it is part of a wider network of interconnected companies, government institutions, international agencies and consumers. You affect and are affected by the decisions that each player makes. Staying on top of economic trends, and using them to your advantage, is just as important as staying on top of consumer trends.

Defining your target market with precision

Do you find that when you’re asked to identify your target market, you respond with something like ‘millennials’ or ‘people living in this area’ or ‘young families’? That’s specific, right?

But yet when you place your ad – which everyone agrees is fabulous – in the media outlet that your target market is exposed to, the results are less than outstanding. Or when you create that product that is perfect for your target market, there’s such little uptake, even though you know your market is aware of your perfect product.

Maybe you’re only attracting the early adopters … or maybe you haven’t defined your market with sufficient precision.

AE’s approach to target market definition consists of 5 levels of precision. Let’s use the example of targeting millennials.

Level 1: Demographics (male millennials, i.e. persons born between 1980 and 1996)
Level 2: Interests (male millennial sports fans)
Level 3: Lifestyle (male millennial sports fans that watch sports while hanging out at bars with their friends a few times a month)
Level 4: Attitudes (male millennial sports fans that watch sports while hanging out at bars with their friends a few times a month and believe that winning is more important than how you play the game)
Level 5: Values (male millennial sports fans that watch sports while hanging out at bars with their friends a few times a month and believe that winning is more important than how you play the game and highly value their traditions)

The best products, market campaigns and corporate strategies require Level 5 targeting.

How would you get their attention if you defined your target market using only Level 1 criteria versus if your target market was defined up to Level 5? Would you still be considering the same media outlets, the same imagery and the same products?

For more information on how you can use this approach in your business, contact us at 246.253.4442 or .

 

 

A few thoughts about focus groups

It seems to me that marketers love focus groups. In almost every discussion I’ve had on solving a market research problem, marketers have suggested the possibility of focus groups. Maybe they’re attractive because they are relatively inexpensive compared to other research methods, can be organised quickly and are deceptively easy to conduct. And you can’t discount the obvious benefit of being able to interact directly with your desired audience.

But a word of caution: focus groups are not the ideal solution in every instance where you need to learn more about your market. Inherent in the use of focus groups are some risks that, if not accounted for, can lead to incorrect conclusions and costly decisions.

This brief post summarises what we’ve found to be the main drawbacks of focus groups.

Group think

People’s ideas and opinions tend to converge when discussed in a group. You’ve probably observed this yourself in meetings. Prior to a meeting, you may have a fairly strong opinion on the issue to be discussed. During the meeting, a strong personality dominates the conversation and either you do not get an opportunity to add your two cents, you start to change your mind and lean more towards the other person’s opinion or you find it easier to only add your opinions that are in alignment with the majority rather than start an argument by disagreeing. In any case, the moderator leaves the session believing that the strong personality’s position was a consensus across the group. In a perfect world, however, the moderator would have had the benefit of your point of view because odds are there are other people in the market that think like you do.

People lie to themselves, so they will lie to you too

This one is hard for most people to fully appreciate in business settings, but often we do not do what we say we will do. That’s why I do not suggest that people use focus groups to gauge intent to purchase. Let’s face it, we all have good intentions that aren’t realised; we don’t think of them as lies. But in this type of research setting, especially if you’re trying to gauge likely purchase, asking people what they plan to do is often not helpful. Yes, there are ways to minimise this, but when compounded by group think, it’s a tall order.

You only get answers to the questions you ask

To be fair, this is a risk in almost all types of research. But in focus groups there is a real danger because you often get such interesting and potentially useful feedback that you may not realise that you didn’t get a good answer to the most important question. Conversations may get derailed, defused or entirely omitted as you run out of time. Consider the example of a focus group to discuss a new product the company plans to offer. Odds are, the discussion would zoom into product features, price points, potential applications, and so forth. But the most important questions really should be: would anyone actually buy this product and, if so, why? That alone could take up the entire hour/hour and a half of a focus group. This leads to a secondary point, which is that too often focus groups attempt to cover too many topics in one session, which does not give the moderator time to really dig deeply into any one issue.

The results are not statistically representative

Too often people confuse the fact that focus groups provide insight into the needs, thoughts and feelings of a target market with the need for insights that are representative of that market. Let’s clear that up. For any sample – the focus groups participants in our case – to be representative of the underlying population, it has to be matched on all attributes that are expected to be influential on research outcomes. This requires detailed understanding of the underlying population that goes beyond basic demographics. You may also need to know their likes/dislikes, geographical location, level of education, family responsibilities, etc. Then you have to ensure that the proportions of various segments of that underlying population are reflected in the same proportions within your sample. But focus groups tend to have no more than twelve people, which may mean one person per segment. One person’s opinion cannot represent their entire segment. There are some workarounds, like multiple focus groups with different segments, very precise selection criteria, etc. But a word of caution: even if you consider the smallest representative sample size, which is around 300 persons, odds are you’re not talking to anywhere near that many people in your focus groups. Don’t confuse informative with representative. They each have their place.

The bias of compensation and other intangible benefits

There are individuals who simply enjoy participating in research activities and care nothing about the topic you’re investigating. They’re opinionated and revel in opportunities where they can share their points of view. Some people in larger countries even make a living from participating in paid research activities. I remember one participant in one of our focus groups casually debating with me about how much he should be paid, even though he was amongst those that contributed the least and we had to keep pushing him for feedback. Clearly, he wasn’t there because of any deep interest in the topic. It’s like gauging the mood of the population simply from listening to a call-in programme. Not everyone who has a strong opinion will call in, and the loudest people do not always speak for the majority. On the flip side, if you don’t compensate people for taking the time out of their busy schedule to attend your focus group, will anyone come?

 

In short, focus groups remain one of our favourite research tools, but they’re not ideal for every situation. Interested in learning more about how to organise your own focus groups, email us at

AE Impact Story: Understanding Payment Trends

Aim of the Project

In Barbados, consumers can pay for goods and services using cash, debit cards, credit cards, cheques, or direct debits (automated payments) from their bank account or online services that link to their credit/debit cards. Our client wanted to understand why the use of certain payment methods was declining while others were increasing, as some of the popular payment methods were more time consuming and posed security challenges, and it, therefore, was not intuitive why they were so popular.

What we did

The payment market has four major players:

  1. Consumers – they determine which payment methods they prefer to use to conduct their business
  2. Merchants – they determine which payment methods they are going to accept within their companies
  3. Financial institutions – provide the various methods of payments to both consumers and merchants, and therefore partially influence what is available in the market
  4. Payment processing companies – provide and operate the platforms on which the payments are transacted; in Barbados these include both private companies and Government-operated clearinghouses.

Each of these players could be making strategic decisions that influence the use (or non-use) of the available payment methods. Background analysis ruled out the payment processing companies as potential influencers, as they had not changed any of their fees, rules or processes in the time period under investigation. To determine how the other three players could be contributing to the observed trends, we conducted a survey with consumers, a survey with merchants, and stakeholder interviews with financial institutions. The findings of all three exercises were analysed and collated into a summary report that highlighted the main factors that explained the changing use of payment methods. The results were then presented to both our client and some of their key external stakeholders.

Impact of Project

In light of the findings, our client revised their corporate strategy to better encourage the use of the payment methods they preferred, and developed a supporting marketing campaign. Their approach therefore spanned both marketing and product design, and early indicators suggest that their efforts have started to result in the market changes that they desire.

Do you map your customers?

A map of customers on a real-world map, created from data, reveals things as they are and takes some of the guess work out of reaching customers. Industries from healthcare to retail to finance to utilities are using location information about their customers and assets to drive superior customer experience, improve process efficiency and lower risk level. Advancements and innovations in geo-spatial technology are driving a new wave of interest in location solutions. Not only does geo-spatial analysis allow companies to use location data to derive unprecedented levels of understanding of customer’s habits and behavior, they also provide the platforms to deliver the message, content and other actions directly to customers in the most appropriate context.

The ability to visualize your customer base using geography opens up a level of knowledge and understanding not available through any other method. Some of the most important insights that marketing, development and delivery professionals are trying to capture from the value of location data are:

  • Where are your customers located in relation to your stores, warehouses and other points of contact? Or, alternatively, where should your distribution centers be located to ensure proximity to your ideal customers?
  • Which areas have a greater level of penetration?
  • Are your lapsed customers coming from certain areas?
  • Which areas have a similar profile to your current base (or your best customers)?
  • What’s the fastest, cheapest or safest route to take to deliver your goods to end-users?
  • How are your assets – such as poles, meters, towers and stores – distributed across a geographical area? Is this distribution optimal given your intended target market?
  • Is store performance linked to geographical location?

Managers in a wide variety of fields are coming to understand the competitive advantages that come with the savvy use of location data, and a few examples are noted below.

Identify Opportunities with Radius Maps

Radius maps, also known as buffer maps, are useful when you need to understand your data in relation to its proximity to other features. They are often used as coverage maps to see where you may have gaps or overlap of coverage of your shops, services, and operations. For instance, you may need to be able to visualize how many customers you have within a 10-mile radius of your office locations, or how many customers you could serve in a particular region if you build a new outlet.

Save Time and Costs with Route Maps

Geo-spatial software can take your chosen stops and optimize a route to reach them all. With options for a round trip, different start and end points and all the intermediate points, you can plan your route in minutes. By optimizing your route, you make sure your sales team’s time is spent in the most efficient manner, saving time and money.

 

 

 

Manage Your Sales Territories

Enhance your maps by combining it with additional visualization tools, such as charts. Charts can give viewers an immediate summary of the data on the map. Geo-spatial software can produce various types of charts which can be added to a map, including bar, line, pie, area, and scatter charts.

Competitive advantage analysis

By overlaying certain location information, such as population density, the road network and store location, organizations can analyze and understand their competitive advantages and disadvantages in the market.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on how customer maps can provide valuable marketing and strategy insights, contact us at

Sources: Antilles Economics and www.espatial.com

Determining the Optimum Cost Structure for a Development Programme

Aim of the Project

A Caribbean development programme, designed to support community development through the provision of grants for community projects, was labelled as high cost due to its relatively high Country Administration Cost to Grant Making Ratio. In other words, the administrative cost of providing the grants far exceeded the total value of the grants that were actually provided. One possible explanation could be that the structure of the programme was either not cost effective or it did not allow for the generation of sufficient grants. Antilles Economics undertook a study to assess the root cause of the high costs and determine the most efficient, effective, results-generating, sustainable and cost-mitigating structure to manage the programme. One unique characteristic of the programme was that it was designed to ensure that support was provided on a country-by-country basis and it was important that this decentralized approach was maintained in any solution.

What we did

We began by reviewing a number of documents on the programme to ascertain background information as well as to lay the foundation for the other approaches to be used. We also gathered information on the management and cost structure of similar programmes internationally to identify best practice.

We then conducted interviews with key stakeholders to establish an initial assessment of the pros and cons of the current system as well as to gather details on the process for approving and providing grants. We also solicited ideas from the volunteers that drove the execution of the programme on the ideal management and cost structure as well as where cost-cutting measures could best be applied. This ensured that any recommendations reflected the experience of those working within the programme, were framed within a set of feasibility parameters and allowed volunteers to maintain the flexibility necessary when utilizing a decentralized framework.

Finally, information was gathered on cost-effective technology solutions that could supplement the existing systems and allow for further cost savings. Wherever possible, these solutions were incorporated as complements to the existing system.

Impact of Project

Four reorganization options were identified and compared in four main areas: ability to maintain the spirit, practice and objectives of the programme; flexibility in the business environment; organisational structure and processes; and, ability to effectively manage staff and volunteers. Criteria were established for each key area and each option was scored based on its ability to achieve the criteria. The best-performing option was recommended to the client. Since adopting the new structure, the client reported improved motivation of staff and increased grant requests.

Introducing AE Quarterly

I’m pleased to introduce AE Quarterly, our email newsletter that will feature articles written by the AE team on business topics relevant to our Caribbean audience.

I would have mentioned our plan to introduce AE Quarterly in our first post of the year, and I’m happy to announce that the inaugural edition has been released. The main goal of the newsletter is to promote discussion on topics that affect doing business here in the region. We all know that there is not enough independent thought on Caribbean business, and we at Antilles Economics are doing our part to close the gap.

The March 2017 edition includes the following articles:

  • From the Minds of Marketers with Greg Hoyos
  • Exploring the Green Economy in Barbados
  • The Barbados Mortgage Market After 9 Years of Economic Strain

Subscribing to the newsletter is free, and if you haven’t already signed up to receive yours, you can do so now by clicking here.

I’d love to hear what you think and any suggestions on the types of articles you’d like to have us feature, so feel free to email us your feedback and suggestions at