When You’re Selling Products That Your Customers Don’t Want

How research can help avoid major mistakes in new-product development

At some point in your career, chances are you’ve gotten a call from a salesperson excited about a new product their company has developed. But chances are also that it was developed with the seller’s needs in mind, not yours. In the media business, new-product development is an insular process. It’s frequently driven by insular executives—people who rarely speak to customers and don’t understand timing or the pain points in the market. They just know they’re under pressure to produce revenue, so they push out a flawed idea. 

The result is predictable. The salesperson ends up behind the eight ball. The client doesn’t have the budget. The idea doesn’t sync with their current priorities. They lose trust in the media brand, which they believe has lost traction in the market. 

In the end, it becomes an “Oh, no, here comes Bob,” dynamic, when a formerly valued partner (the salesperson) becomes a nuisance to be avoided. 

That’s devastating, but it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little bit of planning, any sales organization can raise its game to ensure its product development syncs with what the market needs. I recently spoke with Jack Semler, the owner and CEO of Readex Research, about this common and potentially crippling sales mistake. Here’s our conversation, edited for brevity by Tony Silber. 

James G. Elliott: To begin this discussion, Jack, I have to say, many times in my career we’ve had situations where someone in a media company we’ve represented comes up with an idea that ends up getting internal approval. But it’s often done for political reasons. They didn’t do it in consultation with a large sampling of their client base. In sales, the stronger the connection between the publisher/ owner of the brand and the selling organization and research partner, the better the chances are of something working. But too often it’s the opposite—the publisher or CEO is disconnected. In the association world especially we see a lot of that. So new-product development is about them, not the clients they’re trying to serve. 

Jack Semler: And how many times would you say solid research was a part of this? 

Elliott: Not very often, that’s for sure. But successful product rollouts have mostly included research. We see so many publishing brands chasing the latest shiny object. An example is the brand studio. Some media groups just look around, and they see their peers build an operation, so they run off and try to do it too. But unlike their peers, they may not have the resources, and they have not done feasibility research. And, they’re proceeding after talking only to their own salespeople, not with formal research. They anticipate broad market success from what may have worked with just one client, which had a particular set of problems. They view it as a solution for every client they have; it becomes an expensive exercise with poor ROI.

And speaking of feasibility research, Jack, how many times have you done a strategic-research project and no one follows through on it? 

Semler: I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve been brought in to do real bona-fide feasibility research. Companies should at least sit down with a focus group to get some feedback. But to be honest, that hardly ever happens. Instead, people get excited about their vision. “This is going to happen! We can do it! We can roll it to great success!” They have this attitude even though if they did the research they’d find out it isn’t really what the market needs. 

Elliott: Warren Buffett said, “A bad idea is a bad idea.”

Semler: People don’t realize something is a bad idea even when they’re 80% into it. 

Elliott: Research can be brought in and serve as an advisor in a project. 

Semler: We’re hired to bring a different vision to a process, an unbiased vision for what the process might be. It extends beyond new products. Think about editorial research. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to publishers about editorial research—customer research. It’s rarely, rarely done. True, there’s a cost to it. If you really want to develop new products right, you have to be prepared to put in place a process that is going to work. Even the best research can be faulty, but I can tell you if you don’t research it at all, you’re just throwing caution to the wind. 

Elliott: The cost of research isn’t near the cost of making a bad mistake. Research is a cheap way to go, not an expensive way. I would argue something else, too. A print magazine may have had the same 10,000-circulation for 10 years. And that was fine. You can do a research study once every five years. The problem today is that same magazine has social media, a website, events—all these other audiences. Which makes it more important to know how each of them plays into the others.

Semler: Jim, how have you approached a customer when you realize their new idea is a lousy idea? 

Elliott: If we’re regarded as a strategic partner, and we meet regularly to discuss strategy, the conversation can develop into changing the product mix slightly or getting rid of a product. That said, in many cases the sellers are blamed for inability to sell a lousy idea; it becomes our problem. That happens more often than not. Regular conversations minimize that. What’s prevalent in the last 15 years is to throw up a website without asking what the job is to be done. That same premise can run through all product lines. Don’t confuse enthusiasm with capability. 

Semler: Research can help. Jim, you phrased it just right. You have to ask yourself, “If I launch this product, what is it going to cost me to get it to full speed?” And, “What does the customer really have to say?” That is the role of research. What’s the penalty if you go through with something and it doesn’t work? That’s the real cost. But we are not doing a lot of research that informs strategic decisions. We’re not doing a lot of research that publishers need when they decide what they’re going to offer their customers and as they bring new products and services into the marketplace. If there were more of that, we’d see fewer mistakes and a better mix for the publisher to offer the marketplace. 

Elliott: If you’re going to take the beach on Iwo Jima, don’t send half the force to Saipan. Jack, you’re talking about the cost of the sales team, and the potential expense of directing their attention off the job to be done and onto some stupid idea. Research can be the air support. Any good sales manager is armed with facts when they go in to see senior management. It’s grounded in something. Which brings us back to the importance of research. The point is, smart and innovative companies will use research in their product-development process, and companies that seek to avoid mistakes have an opportunity to adjust their internal go-to-market strategies.

The Case for Research to Support Ad Sales

Research isn’t an expense, it’s an investment. How this investment pays off—that is, assessing the benefit to the publisher, staff and customers—depends on the research objectives. Here are some of the most important benefits of research.

  • It informs a decision before you make that decision. More mistakes are made, and more money wasted, by not having good data to support decision-making.

  • It creates and allows you to own information that no one else has. There’s a phrase, “Knowledge is power.” Information you have that no one else has is valuable.

    It supports your sales efforts because you use research in sales calls. It helps sell the value of your market and demonstrates your expertise.

  • Research provides customers with insights they may not have the time or resources to get on their own, and that makes you a more valued partner.