What are Your Customers and Employees Thinking? The Value of an Outside-In Perspective

"Oh what a gift the Gods would give us
To see ourselves as others see us"

- The poetry of Robert Burns

Do you know how your customers and employees view your products and services? Are your communications meaningful? All you have to do is ask. It may seem obvious, but you can significantly increase your effectiveness in promoting a brand and as a communicator just by asking for input from the very people who you are trying to reach.

For example, we tested a multi-million dollar advertising campaign that positioned a global travel organization as a wonderful employer, promoting a good work atmosphere and benefits. However, employees in our focus groups argued that the claims were untrue. Further investigation at corporate headquarters revealed that the employment conditions described in the advertising were not universal among all locations, and the campaign was scrapped.

This insight was invaluable. Releasing the campaign could have led to both unflattering media coverage of our client as well as negative backlash from employees wondering why they didn't receive the benefits described in the ads.

Simply put, understanding how your employees and customers view your brand and your communications reduces your margin of error. After all, even the highest quality, most professionally produced communications program and materials will fall flat if their contents aren't compelling to the intended audience. When your brand positioning and communications are based on your target audiences' needs and motivations, you can be confident that they will be meaningful to the people that you are seeking to reach — a pull rather than push strategy.

I recently attended a seminar in which a healthcare marketing professional unveiled a television ad campaign that promoted her organization's new positioning. In the question and answer session, I was astounded to learn that both the positioning and the campaign were based entirely on direction from the company's marketing department, executive management team and advertising agency, without input from non-marketing employees or customers. This organization had decided how to position itself and had produced a six figure ad campaign promoting that positioning, with no idea whether the positioning and campaign were credible or compelling to the people they were trying to reach.

What this company hadn't considered was that customers and employees outside of the marketing department often think quite differently than those of us in the marketing business. As a store manager once explained to me, "I'm in the sporting goods business. I'm not a marketing guy. They send me this marketing information from home office and I don't understand all of the words they use, but I'm too embarrassed to call and ask them to explain."

The only way to know if non-marketing audiences understand the message is to actually run it by them. When we test a positioning or campaign in focus groups or interviews, we explore three core criteria among target customers or employees:

• Is the message credible?

• Is it compelling? (Does it answer the "So what?" factor?)

• Does it differentiate the brand from competitors?

It's quite possible for a campaign to pass one of our criteria's tests but fail another. In our earlier example about the employment advertising campaign, customers found the generous benefits and opportunities described to be both intriguing and compelling. However, they wondered if they were true. When the current employees cried foul, it was time to kill the campaign.

Exploring audience product and service needs and reactions to communications both increases your effectiveness and saves money. We use advanced statistics in our communications surveys of employees to identify the key drivers of effective communications. By key drivers, we mean the strategies and tactics that are most likely to produce a desired outcome, i.e. employees feeling informed or staff supporting a merger or reorganization.

This process allows us to advise our clients where they should focus resources in order to really move the needle on achieving better business results. The pay-off for clients is more effective communications, significant cost savings and quantified measurement of results.

For example, we identified supervisor communications as a key driver of employees feeling informed within a McDonald's Corporation department. We also noted that particular areas within the department were lagging in supervisor communications skills and worked with our client to ensure the appropriate supervisors received communications training. As a result, supervisor communications quality improved, and consequently, the number of employees who reported receiving the information they needed to do their jobs well increased from 47% to 79% over two years. The value that employees placed upon internal communications also multiplied dramatically, leading to an expanded department in great demand.

Findings from our communications audit of Exelon Corporation employees helped the corporation realign its communications vehicles — leading to savings in the six figures — and provided clear direction for how the Corporate Communications department could help employees to feel better informed. Eighteen months later, we conducted a follow-up audit that quantified the Exelon Corporate Communications department's resulting increase in effectiveness.

Product development, identification of new services, and building and marketing a brand require a tremendous amount of effort and resources. An outside-in perspective provides invaluable insight into ensuring the effectiveness of that hard work. Asking for input before proceeding with campaigns and initiatives always pays off in the form of an audience that feels they need our products and services and value our message.


Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and retain employees and customers. Subscribe to the FREE JRS newsletter on

© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2007