High-performance companies throughout history have a common thread to their success. They earn market share by becoming the value leaders in their market niche.

This makes infinite sense when we look at buying decisions that we personally make. We always purchase the product or service that offers us the most value among our choices. In other words, the marketplace votes on the market leader with their purchasing dollars.

Most business leaders assume they already know what their customers value, and often become complacent if they believe they hold the most market share in their area. But how can they be sure that success will continue?

No building service provider holds more than two to five percent of the overall U.S. market. And, depending on the size of more local or regional markets, there tend to be a few key leaders who constantly battle for the top spot. It can be difficult to name a company in this industry that has led its market for 10 years or more.

The market leaders are constantly changing, because the source of the better idea is constantly changing.

To be the value leader in the building service contracting field, you must clearly understand what your specific marketplace values. Of course, general ideas such as “high-quality cleaning” and “good customer service” are valuable to every customer, but what about the more specific priorities, that vary between facility types, building sizes and geographic location?

To find out what matters most to client, many BSCs turn to customer surveys — sending out a printed questionnaire to their entire client base.

However, while surveys may be effective for understanding how customers rate their contractor in specific areas, they do little to tell the company what product features or additional services they may value, or even how they make buying decisions.

Just look at the last customer survey your company did. Most surveys contain a page-long laundry list of categories such as ‘customer service’ with which customers are expected to rate the contractr on a scale from 1 to 5. But what you really want to know is what changes will make your product or service that of choice in the marketplace. These 1-to-5 ratings do little to answer that question, and the little space at the end of a survey asking for comments rarely helps.

This year, instead of surveying customers, consider holding a symposium to help better understand how you can truly partner with customers and solve their problems.

Consumer companies, from food producers to personal-care suppliers, use focus groups to gauge customer reactions to new product ideas.

A customer symposium has a few differences. For instance, symposiums are used in business-to-business relationships rather than for consumers. Participants usually represent or could represent a significant percentage of the contractor’s revenue. Also, symposiums can last a day or a weekend, whereas focus groups usually last only a few hours.

In addition, participants come together to learn from their colleagues, not just to tell their suppliers what they want. There is something in it for the customer as well.

Of course, the sponsor benefit is gaining a clearer understanding of its customers’ and prospects’ challenges. Attendees can contribute creative ideas that help improve services and customer relationships, as well as beat the competition.

Most symposium sponsors learn things about their customers that they never get form bid conferences or review meetings. They may learn how the different company cultures impact decisions, or they may learn other nuances that no contract could devulge.

How to organize a symposium
First, you need to make sure that your entire organization understands that the purpose of the symposium is market research. Unfortunately, there will always be a faction that wants to sell extra services or woo new customers at the symposium.

Resist this temptation which could offend your attendees. Many companies increase their business with many of the attendees, but this happens because they have a better understanding of each other after the symposium, not because anything was sold to them.

Schedule the event at least four months in advance. Invite current customers as well as prospects, because prospects will have a different perspective than current customers. A good group size is between eight and 20 participants, but expect about 10 percent to cancel at the last minute.

Make sure that you invite both decision-makers and workers to the meeting. There is a tendency to invite executives only, but they are not always the people with the challenges. Explain to the decision-makers what you are trying to learn. Ask them if they would like to send someone on their staff as a reward.

While it is not necessary, think about going to a desirable location, such as a beach, golf or mountain retreat. The location can attract more of the right attendees, and create a relaxed environment that advances creative thinking.

Most symposium sponsors pay for the attendees’ accommodations and include an extra night for fun at the end of the event. Some will pay for airfare and a rental car. Most will invite spouses to the social events.

During the symposium
While you may be tempted to run the discussion yourself, consider using a consultant, or other third party to facilitate the discussions. Most groups, left on their own will drift from topic to topic. Using an outside professional will make the day more productive and demonstrate your neutrality. The consultant also will ensure the day is for fact finding not for making sales.

During the discussion, document the salient points; afterward, distribute the notes to the attendees.

The cost of a symposium with a small group is generally about the same as a marketing survey to the entire customer base. However, surveys are flat. Plus, people more often enjoy attending symposiums. They generally leave energized by what they have contributed and by what they have learned from their peers. With a symposium, your sample size is much smaller, but your information is much deeper.

Pam Mitchell is a speaker, symposium leader and strategic planning consultant. She works with companies that want to increase their profitability by becoming more valuable to their customers. To learn more about symposiums call (937) 293-6640.