What kind of requirements and needs do our clients have? Many think they know, but through regularly carrying out customer attitude surveys every supplier achieves groundwork based on facts to be used in their strategy work and continuous customer relation.

It is self-evident for every company to put great effort into cost effectiveness. But it is not as obvious to put as much effort into getting to know the market place and identifying the needs of one’s clients. Suppliers of consumer goods have analysed their markets, tested and measured all things measurable for a long time. The big, consumer oriented companies put large resources into professional and effective analysis methods in order to understand their markets better; measuring, mapping, and testing all that can be tested.

Ulf Edman, CEO, Södra Cell International

Within the producer goods industry, including the forest industry, the insight of the importance of market analysis for the companies’ operational management and for the ability to make the right business decisions is still lacking in many companies. But it is about time to rethink! In order to be able to take on new challenges, forest companies are forced to thoroughly review their business and conceive new strategies. One important starting-point in this revision is to conduct an analysis of the present state of affairs or a position determination to enable the creation of an action plan and there through determine the future direction.

It can be compared with navigating a ship towards a set destination. First and foremost one must be aware of one’s exact position in order to be able to set out on the right course towards the desired destination. That task will be impossible if one does not know one’s initial position and one can end up anywhere, with the evident risk of running aground at any time!

Geographical location determination is a piece of cake nowadays, thanks to the GPS technique. To determine one’s company’s exact market position, including its strengths and weaknesses, is not just as easy but there are reliable methods and tools for that too, and it is based on the conduction of customer attitude measurements. It is evident that clients are the ones having the best picture and perception of their supplier’s strengths and weaknesses and are the ones who can give the best foundation for the determination of the present market position as well as the future strategy.

Very often these analyses are made based on information and opinions deriving from members of the companies’ own organisation, preferentially from the marketing- and sales departments. But evidence show that these internal surveys mostly are deceptive. Strengths are often underestimated and weaknesses, on the other hand, are prettified or are avoided being highlighted, which is devastating in the long run.

That is why a skilled, external consultancy company should be commissioned to do systematic and methodical customer attitude surveys on a regular basis. This way the most accurate picture possible of how one’s company is perceived as a supplier can be provided. That will result in an outstanding tool to be used in the strategic work in order to enhance the company’s competitiveness and ability to survive.

A correctly carried out customer attitude survey, including client feedback does furthermore create positive effects in clients perceiving the company as committed, on the move, being ready to act and striving to be the best! This strongly contributes to giving the company a positive image.

One of the best examples of a company within the forest industry which already a long time ago realised the importance of customer attitude surveys is Södra Cell, Europe’s largest producer of market pulp and one of the largest in its kind worldwide.

- To us, regular customer satisfaction surveys are a corner stone in our business making and one of the most important components in our strategic work, says Ulf Edman, CEO for Södra Cell International, the company in charge of marketing and sales of the 2 million tonnes of pulp that Södra Cell produces yearly.

Our thinking always starts from the client. What does the client look like? What are his needs? What do his prerequisites look like? Our primary goal is to find solutions that simplify things for our clients, in addition to us being able to continuously improve as a supplier. This way we are able to differentiate ourselves from competition and strengthen our position on the market, Ulf Edman continues. – And with that ambition it is absolutely a necessity to ask the advice of our clients. It is up to the clients themselves to tell us what solutions we should be focusing on, and what we should do to make their business more cost effective. Furthermore, the customer attitude survey gives us an acknowledgment on how we perform and how well we meet customer demands.

There are many companies who believe that they do not have to ask their clients how they want it, but rather do internal surveys and act upon those, but that very often leads you in the wrong direction. You might put effort into the things that actually bear little interest to customers and miss out on the essential ones, Edman says.

We at Södra Cell started working with customer attitude surveys in the end of the 1990’s. When I took on the position of Marketing Manager in 1997 I wanted a starting point. I wanted to know the true market position of the company and there was only one way of finding that out; by asking our customers. At that time the internal picture of our position was rather vague and partly contradictory and I felt that I could not act on that.

We assigned Opticom International Research to do an extensive customer attitude survey. The results formed the foundation of the new business strategy that we worked out next. That was in fact the initiation of a philosophy and a mode of operation that we now apply at Södra Cell, where we measure as much as possible, both internally as well as externally. In that way we avoid basing our decisions on beliefs and guesses but get a much better basis for our decisions. The customer attitude surveys form the base, but we often go to the market to check specific issues, concerning the environment, for example.

Now we do customer attitude surveys every second year and those reports form the basis of our strategic and operational work here at Södra Cell. The customer attitude surveys are the driving force in the development of our general offer and in how we perform in the market place as well as in our customer relations. Everything that we have developed and launched on the market since 1999 derives from what we have found out in the customer attitude surveys. It really shows ever so clearly what customers want and we just have to acknowledge that and act accordingly. Identify customer needs and meet those needs and everybody is happy. It is really that simple and self-evident when one thinks about it!

But it was not that self-evident when we started the customer surveys, I won’t deny that, says Edman. There were differing opinions about the benefits of this work within the organisation. There were discussions concerning the interpretation of the answers and a lot was being questioned, but that was in those days. Today this way of working is very established within the company, everybody is on board and our work is very goal-oriented.

The co-operation which we initiated with Opticom when they were assigned to to our first customer survey in 1999 has continued and the set up today is tailor made to suit our needs. The core of the survey is the same each time but at every occasion there is an adjustment to what has happened since the last time. In addition, the method, the analysis work, the presentation, and the reporting have continuously developed so that the value of the survey has grown ever more over time.

Thanks to the customer attitude surveys we have developed several interesting solutions for our customers and as a result we have considerably strengthened our market position, says Ulf Edman. We have, among other things, created more stable business relations. That, in turn, has resulted in a more stable and more even flow of products to the market. The even flow particularly is maybe the most important issue when it comes to cost efficiency in a process industry where production- and logistic planning are key factors for profitability.

It is very easy to point at the advantages with customer surveys, not only to us but also to our clients; both parts are gaining on it. Thanks to the customer interviews Södra Cell is the first supplier that has introduced a continuous dirt measurement device at all pulp mills, which is a decisive factor as cleanliness of the pulp is considered the most important customer quality parameter. In addition Södra Cell has developed its PulpService- programme based on information derived from the customer surveys.

The customer attitude surveys thus have a very large value for Södra Cell, Ulf Edman emphasises, and concludes by telling, not without pride, that the company scores very high in the latest customer satisfaction index.

Define your future market position in good times

Mikael Selling and Carl Michael Bergman jointly founded the market research and consulting company Opticom International Research AB in 1987. Today the company has 20 years’ experience of customer attitude surveys, among other things, and over 500 surveys have been conducted globally for some of the world’s biggest and most respected companies.

-The understanding of the importance of customer attitude surveys as a tool to determine a company’s market position, as well as its strengths and weaknesses has increased with time but we still see many examples of companies where there is good understanding for it at the marketing department but where that understanding has not penetrated into the decision makers at corporate management level. Many ambitiously conducted customer attitude surveys, as well as other kind of market analyses are not used as a basis for business plans and strategies. Reports end up unused in office desk drawers, which not only is destruction of capital, but also a sign of lack of competence on corporate management level, says Mikael Selling, Partner at Opticom and Business Area Manager of its Pulp & Paper division.

- But now it is time for companies to adapt to the new realities surrounding us. Right now, in the midst of high economic growth, many companies are running full steam with the highest possible utilisation of capacity and the situation looks bright, also for many pulp and paper manufacturers and their suppliers. But sooner or later there will be a dip, that is hardly contested, and then it is time to have one’s house in order, have strategies in place and to be sure that the company is in best possible shape.

- It is today, when things are running well, that one has to determine one’s market position and set the course for the future. A correctly conducted customer attitude survey and implementation of the results play a vital role here. Tomorrow, in a weaker economic climate, the competitiveness of companies is tested and then it is all about the survival of the fittest. This is the situation to prepare for when there is still time, Mikael Selling says with emphasis.

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