Most large companies gather considerable amounts of data about the people and businesses that buy their wares. But it's not always clear how much they actually know about those customers. In a recent series of business seminars, a team administered an online survey to the participants. Though nearly all came from well-regarded companies, fewer than 25 percent agreed with the simple statement, "We understand our customers." In a 2005 Bain & Company survey, we asked respondents to identify the most important capabilities they could add to their business to trigger a new wave of growth. "Capabilities to understand our core customers more deeply" was at the top of the list.
For just this reason, customer insights and relationships are often hidden assets. A company might discover that one neglected customer segment holds the key to far more growth than it has enjoyed in the past. It might find that it is in a position of influence over its customers, perhaps because of the trust and reputation that it enjoys, and that it has not fully developed this position. Or it may find that it has proprietary data that can be used to alter, deepen, or broaden its customer relationships. All these can stimulate renewed growth around a new core.
It is somewhat unusual to find an untapped segment of customers that is poised for rapid growth. But it isn't at all unusual for a company to realize that it has deeper relationships with customers than it realized, or that it has more knowledge about customers than it has put to work.
Hyperion Solutions, a producer of financial software, was able to reinvent itself around new products and a new sales-and-service platform precisely because corporate finance departments had come to depend on Hyperion software for financial consolidation and SEC reporting. "We totally underestimated how much they relied upon us for this very technical and sensitive part of their job," said CEO Jeff Rodek. American Express transformed its charge-card business on the basis of previously unutilized data showing how different customer segments used the cards and what other products they might be interested in.