How To Do Research For Business Development


Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.Zora Neale Hurston

Often, in our hurry for shortcuts and easy ways to success we ignore the basic routes – the ones that will get us there but that also need us to cover some distance first.

That happens all the time, to me anyway, when it comes to business development – which is not the same as sales.

Instead, it’s what you do to make your business better, which includes getting better clients.

Maybe even more of them.

As I was reminded recently it all starts with research – but what does that mean and how can you do it more effectively?

The model in the picture above is a five-step process that I find works for me – but that I also often need to remind myself to follow.

1. Start by designing a filter

The main choice we have to make these days is not what to include but what to leave out.

It’s easy to want to be seen as someone that can do everything but that simply means you also need to know about everyone.

And, as that’s impossible it makes sense to filter the universe out there and focus on only those prospects that have a need for your services.

That filter may be a simple one that first restricts by sectors then by companies and then by people.

You might choose, for example, to focus on the oil and gas sector, the companies with a turnover of over a billion and the Technical Manager for pipes.

2. Gather information

This step is often missed out or carried out in a way that isn’t systematic or repeatable.

The irony is that with so much information around us we do a quick search for a company, read a few pages and then try and get in touch with someone.

But, if you take the time to read about the company, what it’s doing, what its finances look like and what’s being published in the news then you get a much richer picture of what’s going on.

You can’t do that in your head – you need tools.

For example, this where things like Evernote or OneNote come in or, if you like open source, something that information security professionals use like Basket Note Pads or Dradis.

3. Look for common ground

Now, with your material you can read – and look for people and what you have in common.

The point of this is not to be stalkerish but to be curious – to take the time to understand what is out there so that when you reach out you don’t waste someone else’s time.

All too often you get connections on social media that are designed to test if you react at all – and then to follow up with a series of messages.

Which probably works for people – and they make their numbers but more people must get annoyed at the approach than those that welcome it.

If you want to build a business relationship with someone new it makes sense to keep it ethical – because otherwise you’re starting it in the wrong way.

If you take the time to understand where someone is from what is publicly available and craft a message that is based around common goals and values you’ll probably do better – in terms of quality contacts anyway.

4. Seek to understand and educate

Children don’t go happily to someone new, they find someone to hide behind, peeping out warily.

That sense of being wary never leaves most of us. We’re not interested in what you’re offering – we’re just looking at that first step and seeing if we’re brave enough to take it.

So that means you’re a way away from making a sale – instead your approach should be designed to understand and educate the person you want to work with over time.

And that probably means slowing down – not pitching and selling right away.

That can be hard if it’s what you feel like you should do but it might be easier when you think of it as having to go up a number of steps before you reach the point where you can do a deal.

5. Study the results

Studying organisations and people is a matter of looking and learning.

Yes you may want to be data driven and formal but in many service businesses what matters is the one to one exchange you have with others.

But whether its data or whether its a reflection on how your last pass through the process loop went, the point is to look and learn.

Did your filter work effectively?

Did you get enough information – was there something you missed that might have helped with a conversation later on?

Are people responding to you – are you showing that there is enough common value for them to take that first step?

And then are they taking the next one, and the next one after that.

Do the basics well – even though it’s hard

The fact is that many of us would much rather be busy doing work than working on systems or improving our own approaches.

As the saying goes, however, you don’t rise to the level of your expectations – you fall to the level of your training.

It’s easy to skip any one of these steps and try and go straight to a hard close.

But by taking your time you’ll build a better business – one that works for you and helps you eventually meet your expectations.


Karthik Suresh

If You’re So Smart Why Aren’t You Rich?


Sunday, 8.33pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I will tell you the secret to getting rich on Wall Street. You try to be greedy when others are fearful. And you try to be fearful when others are greedy. – Warren Buffett

I started my career as a geek – and I’m still one, really.

In 1997 and 1998 I was installing Red Hat Linux and Slackware and discovering the command prompt.

I did programming work for money and even though I disliked how slow and clunky tools like Microsoft Excel were that’s what most people used and what they paid you to use for them.

But what I also learned as I spent more time working was that the ability to do stuff using a computer had much less commercial value than it might seem at first glance.

Don’t get me wrong – computers are incredibly useful and I couldn’t do any of the work I do without the tools and hardware we have today – especially the whole world of GNU/Linux.

But they’re useful mostly for programmers and the things that make my life easy are not things you could or would wish to sell.

For example, are you interested in how to use awk to create an electronic index card program?

It’s pretty easy – but the answer to that is probably not.

The fact is that you don’t find many programmers running things – especially not programmers that are still programming.

At the same time many people believe that being smart and being technologically capable qualifies you to have a view on the best way something should be done.

You’ve got a model – a complex one, maybe one based on artificial intelligence. The model says you should do X, so there you go – problem solved! Pay up.

But there’s a weakness here, a weakness set out in the book Rational Analysis for a Problematic World edited by Jonathan Rosenhead.

This has the depressing line for those who believe that their technical capability is important.

For these people, Rosenhead writes, “…it offers a reliable downhill path to the role of minor technical auxiliary.”

In other words, if your skillset is based around being technically smart you might want to think about hiding that from other people.

And the reason for that is shown in the picture above.

There are two things to think about: what you want to happen and how you are going to make it happen.

That is, you need to think about the outcome and the method.

If you know what you want and you know the best method to get there then the task you have to do is a computation.

Do the analysis and work out the best option.

For example, if you need to route your truck through several cities and need to work out the best route – that’s a job for your technical expert.

The outcome is certain – the shortest route. The method is certain – a routing algorithm.

Now, let’s say your expert says that there are three different algorithms that produce slightly different results what do you do?

In this case the outcome is the same – the shortest route but the method to use is uncertain.

So, you go into bargaining mode and ask what the pros and cons are and what you can do to minimise the downside.

Eventually, however, you make the call on what to do.

Another situation you might face is when the method is clear but the outcome is uncertain.

For example, you might have a fund with money to invest but you’re looking at two different sectors – biotech and property.

One has stable returns but little prospect of explosive growth. The other has the potential for growth but you could take a big hit.

Computation is of limited use after a while in this situation. Decisions about markets often come down to a question of judgement – and it needs a person to make a call.

Yes, you can have algorithms that exploit differences for a while – but they will have to keep hunting because their own activity will start to close differences.

Which then takes us to the final quadrant – where the outcome is uncertain and the method is uncertain.

Should you study law or art or should you go to the local university or to one in a different country?

Should your company invest in marketing or in growth through acquisition? Should you start flexible working or rely on an office based staff?

Such questions have no clear answers – not ones you can get to on mathematical terms anyway.

Those situations need more than smarts – they need empathy, an ability to study situations and the skills to come up with a variety of solutions and decide which one to go with.

And they also need a big helping of luck.

The fact is that as you climb higher in organisations your smarts matter less and less.

It’s about politics and networks and deals up there.

And doing things differently from the herd.

It’s about managing uncertainty.

And the one thing that’s certain is that you’ll be paid more to sort out an uncertain situation than a certain one.


Karthik Suresh

p.s If you’d like to read an article about studying situations using ethnographic research methods take a look at How to study an organisation on my Articles page.

What Can Chess Tell Us About Developing A Content Strategy?


Saturday, 9.12pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I used to attack because it was the only thing I knew. Now I attack because I know it works best. – Garry Kasparov

Saturday mornings are a time to go to the library and browse for surprises.

Today, however, I had a definite aim in mind.

The elder youngster and I had played a game of chess earlier – something I don’t really do much.

After a false start, confused by the picture on the cover that showed a chessboard that just happened to be set up wrong, we played a couple of games.

So I thought it might be a good idea to have a look and see if there were any books that might help a younger audience (and me) with our game.

After some searching I found a book called Tips for young players which, confusingly, does not have the word Chess anywhere in the title or on the spine – one assumes the authors wanted to keep it secret.

Leafing through the pages I learned there are four concepts you must understand to win – and interestingly they are four concepts that you can apply to many other things in life.

Like developing a content strategy.

I thought of content strategy mainly because I’d been talking to a friend about content and was musing on the kind of model that might help – and this one came along so let’s see if it’s any use…

1. Control or occupy the centre ground

You want your pieces to be in the centre of the board.

A bishop in the centre can reach 13 places. One in a corner can only get to seven.

The content marketing equivalent of this is to ask whether you’re in control of the space you want to play in or whether you’re on the fringes.

If you’re trying and failing to break into a crowded and noisy market maybe there’s a quiet space where you can be heard better?

Sometimes this means getting more specific about what you do.

If you’re a marketing consultant, for example, and want to stand out from the other marketing consultants out there what space would make sense for you to occupy?

The real point here is that you have to make a decision about which battlefield you are going to fight on – one that you control or one that you need to fight your way onto in the first place.

That decision could make the difference between success and failure.

2. Protect the king

As the game opens up your king gets more exposed so it’s important to move the piece to safety – to the edges as soon as possible by castling – crossing over the king and the rook.

The equivalent of this is protecting your most important asset – whatever that might be.

When it comes to content that might be your process, your writers or your research material.

Or, more importantly, it’s probably your time.

If you’re in charge of creating content you need to set time aside to do it – and you need to protect that time.

It’s almost impossible to do creative work ad-hoc.

The best way is to make it routine – to sit down at the same time and do the work – and that won’t happen unless you protect and shield that time from everyone – bosses, families and distractions.

3. Rapid development

In Chess pawns play a very important part.

Despite being the weakest pieces on the board their ability to attack and the reluctance of your opponent to sacrifice valuable pieces in exchange for a pawn let you charge forward.

And to get that charge underway you want to move pieces quickly.

Rather than doing multiple moves with one piece get them all into play.

The equivalent of a pawn in your content strategy is perhaps a blog post – something short that you can get out every day but that over time builds into a solid library of content that leads your charge.

Putting something out every week helps create a more receptive environment for the larger material you send out every few months.

Your mix of content can be likened to your mix of pieces – some short and expendable and some long, complex or expensive to create and use.

What you want to do, however, is get your content in play because the more you have the more likely it is that you’ll give the competition a “Content Shock” where they see the amount of stuff you have out there and decide that it’s easier to go and compete with someone else.

4. Take the initiative

Finally, if you’re now creating content you can’t sit back and wait for people to find you.

In Chess, once your pieces are on the board you need to take the initiative – press the attack and force your opponent to react to your moves rather than reacting to theirs.

With content that means reaching out and helping put your material in front of people – using social media and the other means at your disposal to get your message out there.

The fact is that there is much more stuff out there than people will ever have a chance to get around to looking at.

For a while – maybe a long time – you’ll need to work on recruiting people to look at your content – maybe directly, maybe through advertisements.

But you have to do something – and take the initiative or you could be waiting a long time


These four rules seem quite simple but it’s quite likely that if you look at your own content strategy you could do better on one or more of them.

Perhaps you’re creating content that’s too much like everything else out there.

Maybe you’d like to do more but just haven’t protected the time.

Or you’re a perfectionist and it just takes you a couple of months to get everything right instead of putting something out every day or week.

Or you’ve got a great content creation machine – but no one knows about it because you haven’t told them.

But when you boil all this down I’m reminded of something a friend of mine who played competitive chess once told me.

Just attack.


Karthik Suresh

How To Think When Planning A New Marketing Campaign


Friday, 8.48pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine. – David Ogilvy

What do you do when thinking of marketing a new business or idea?

If you follow the traditional approach you start with a plan – and writing that plan requires researching and understanding your market.

But what does that research look like?

One way to approach the task of research is to look at it as a scientific problem.

You have a population out there and you can segment that population using various characteristics – geography, income, job titles and so on.

Once you study your population – little humans suspended in a vat of solution you can come up with your campaign – say a social media or search engine ad and let it run and a percentage of the humans will make their way towards you like iron filings towards a magnet.

This system works – after all many people have successfully used it to market their businesses online and offline.

So, surely you can use it as well?

Well… there are a couple of issues that are worth understanding first.

I was listening to Jim Collins being interviewed on the Tim Ferriss show.

It’s a fascinating episode and you get a chance to listen to a management legend – someone who has built a career on studying companies using methods like the ones described above – positivist ones.

Collins and his team study huge amounts of data, coding them and pulling out insights – which is how he identified a set of companies that outperformed others in his book Good to Great.

But, the problem is that despite all that data the characteristics that made the sample companies great only describe what they are – and are little use when thinking about companies not in the sample.

Taking the picture above, the insights you get about the samples in A cannot be generalised to include the samples in B.

Why is that?

That’s something a paper by Lee and Baskerville titled “Generalizing Generalizability in Information Systems Research” goes into in some detail.

To cut a long story short you can study a thing and say things about what you see and the measurements you make.

But what you can’t do is prove that what you learn or believe is going to apply to other things.

It’s something called Hume’s truism.

You can assume, guess and try it out – but you can’t generalise – say it’s generally true that if you do what you did in A you get the same result for B.

Which is what Collins says as well: “The books never promised that these companies would always be great, just that they were once great.”

So, what’s the second way of doing your research.

Well, you need to do what the experimenter is doing in vat A – jumping in and getting involved in the situation.

If you’re trying to engage with people – trying to get them to listen to your pitch about what you do then your starting point is to understand them by living the way they do.

Sort of like ethnographers of old used to do – go and live in societies to understand their customs and rituals.

And that’s what you need to do – go to the people you want to talk to and understand how they live and ideally, live it yourself.

That kind of research doesn’t try and generalise – it tries to understand.

It doesn’t use stats and conversion ratios but looks at people and appreciates them for what they are.

And I don’t think you can play games like saying you’ve created personas so now you understand the market and what you need to do.

Now, of course, bosses want results and want them quick.

So just buy that list and send out some emails.

But if you really want results you’d be better off learning how to do good quality research.

Research that seeks to understand – not from a distance but by getting up close and personal.

It’s a bit like a celebrity who spends a night out in the open to get an appreciation of what a homeless person goes through.

That’s better quality research, from this point of view, than a pile of papers written in a warm, cosy study about the nature of the homeless experience.

If you want a name for this kind of approach we can borrow the term Genchi Genbutsu from the Toyota Production System.

Which means Go and See what is happening for yourself.


Karthik Suresh

What Is The Purpose Of Your Marketing Communications Activity?


Thursday, 8.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things. – Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

We have been so thoroughly indoctrinated into the world of scientific thinking that it’s hard to imagine any other way to approach the world around us.

Marketing communications, for example, is about how you talk to prospects and customers.

The textbook on my shelf says that it is a “… planned, integrated and controlled interactive dialogue with key target audiences…”

In other words, the writers believe there is an audience out there and you can plan and control how you talk with it.

Except, there isn’t an audience. There are people – individuals – who make decisions about how to interact with what you put into the world.

You have no control over what they do.

Or do you?

There is an industry built on the idea that you can get people to do what you want by being very clever about the way you create your marketing material.

But clever in the sense of doing what – what’s the intent?

I suppose you can look at intent along a line with two extremes.

At one end you’re looking to educate your prospect.

At the other you’re trying to manipulate them.

Let’s say you’re trying to write a direct mail letter.

One purpose of your letter could to explain the features and benefits of your product to a reader so they can make an informed choice.

Or you might have a load of unsold stock that you need to unload and the purpose of the letter is to get some mugs to send in their money and take your tat.

I suppose if you find yourself in the second position it’s worth taking some time to reflect and ask if that’s really what you want to be doing with your life.

If you’re good at what you do – writing marketing copy, for example – do you feel good when it is used in that way?

But there’s another thing to consider – and that’s the medium you’re using and how well you’re using it.

The medium you use invariably affects the message you create.

You’re going to create a very different message if you’re sending a letter than if you’re creating a TV advert.

And the thing about the medium is how you use it.

Good email marketers, for example, try and make things clear.

Novice marketers spend more time on look and feel, assuming that such things have an impact.

On most mail clients, however, images are suppressed and all you get is the text that remains – which is often too poor to stand on its own and usually ends up in the junk folder.

So you could look at the medium as another continuum and ask whether your use of it is confused or clear.

A confused approach relies on throwing lots of stuff out there and hoping the magic of conversion ratios works.

It’s about as annoying an approach for the recipient as having the sender attached to your legs and having to drag them around all day.

A confused approach that seeks to educate probably ends up turning people off.

A clear approach that seeks to manipulate might work – but not in the long term because people hate being duped and will not give you a second chance.

Sometimes I think that people who suggest that you create a strategy to target an audience have never really had to target an audience of their own.

Because, if they had, they would realise something that writers have known for a while.

You don’t write for an audience.

You write to one person – and sometimes that person is yourself.

If you do a good job that person will understand what you have to say.

Warren Buffett, for example, starts drafting his shareholder letters with the words ‘Dear Doris and Bertie’ – writing to his sisters to tell them how he has been managing their investment for the last year.

He doesn’t try and address thousands of shareholders – by focusing on a couple his message is focused and amplified rather than diffused and incoherent.

Marketing, when it comes down to it, is a conversation between you and another person.

Your intent is to educate.

And whatever medium you use, you need to try and keep it clear and simple.

The rest, as they say, will take care of itself.


Karthik Suresh

Why Do We Never Think Of Managing Conflict Situations?


Wednesday, 8.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. – Sun Tzu

Many of you reading this have probably read Sun Tzu’s quote and nodded approvingly.

An slightly more amusing one comes from a play by Wole Soyinka I read decades ago: “…in time of trouble it behoves us to come together, to forget old enmities and bury the hatchet in the head of a common enemy”

All I remember about that time was, alongside being involved in plays, I saw my first Siamese cat and ate my first battered prawn.

But, we digress.

Let’s talk about children instead.

Children are interesting: little people with boiling emotions simmering close to the surface.

They haven’t learned to protect themselves yet with a thick, hard crust that keeps everything under control.

When they’re upset they erupt, emotions flowing through gaping cracks, anger everywhere.

And the thing is when we grow up we’re not really that different.

Yes, we hide it better, but underneath the surface those emotions swirl away, still hot and turbulent and ready to come out.

But for many years our theories of management assume that people are really rational.

I have been recently introduced to the book Rational Analysis for a Problematic World edited by Jonathan Rosenhead and in the first ten pages he points out that the way we make decisions misses something very important.

If you have any experience of markets, for example, you’ll have heard people talking knowledgeably about decision making under things.

Like decision making under risk and decision making under uncertainty.

With risk, you know what could happen and will happen if one of those things did happen.

Sort of like betting on horses.

With uncertainty, lots of things could happen but because there is some kind of pattern you can be more confident that some things will happen rather than others.

Sort of like the weather in the next day or so.

Anyway, Rosenhead has a paragraph that describes this using quite technical language that brought up images of the recent Jurassic Park movie, which I then tried to explain to the little person sat next to me.

When you make decisions under risk it’s like having to make a decision about a dinosaur fossil – it’s pretty safe and just sits there and you can poke it and prod it and nothing’s going to happen.

Decision making under uncertainty is like having to make a decision about a live T-Rex, but one that’s been thoroughly sedated and is sleeping in front of you.

Not quite so safe, but you’re confident nothing bad is going to happen.

Real life decisions, however, involve dinosaurs that are wide awake and looking at you menacingly and end, as most of the movies of the genres do, in conflict.

And so really we should spend a LOT MORE time studying how to make decisions under conflict situations.

And the picture above is a start at mapping the relationship between conflict and outcomes.

Let’s try it with experiences with kids that you’ve either had or likely will have.

If you and your child end up in a shouting match you both lose.

It’s no fun and you could just end up stomping away from each other.

That gets increasingly likely as they get older and bigger and more bloody minded.

If you can still dominate them you might win – but it’s not going to make them feel better or leave you feeling good.

That’s the thing about battles – no one wins.

What happens if you avoid conflict – but use emotional blackmail or passive-aggressive methods instead?

Again, no one ends up happy. Bosses that try to avoid conflict rarely have happy staff – all that bottled up emotion gets let out somewhere else – where it doesn’t do any good.

The best way to resolve a conflict is not to fight and to have both parties win.

Which is why Sun Tzu’s remedy is at best temporary.

If you defeat an enemy without fighting you still have an enemy.

You need to think better.

And so perhaps the best quote that sums up the approach you could take when trying to manage decision making under conflict comes from one of those little people again – probably from a programme they watched on telly.

“Daddy,” said the little person, “how do you defeat an enemy?”

“I don’t know. How do you defeat an enemy?”

“By turning them into a friend.”


Karthik Suresh

How To Measure What Really Matters For Understanding


Tuesday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

A bad system will beat a good person every time. – W. Edwards Deming

I am not a fan of measuring and tracking things.

I might be at first – it’s interesting building a new system to log data, for example, but eventually the work gets tiresome and it’s easy to stop.

The thing is that is seems like an essential part of success.

The psychiatrist Raj Persaud in his book Motivation says you need three things in order to be successful – goals, resources and monitoring.

I don’t think he explains these in great detail – as to what exactly is meant by these terms.

Goals, for example, are problematic.

Are goals aspirational – things you hope to attain one day – like peace of mind?

Or are they specific and time-bound – like saving enough money for a house deposit in 9 months?

And what’s the difference between a goal and a target?

Let’s assume that you have a goal – however defined – what do you need in order to achieve it?

If you want to make lots of money but have no capital then is that a problem?

If you haven’t got the skills or experience to develop an app is your goal to be the next Microsoft realistic?

And then what exactly are you measuring?

If you’re counting money are you focusing on output rather than activity?

Revenue or profits are not going to go up just because you want them to.

Now the reason this issue is problematic is because you’ll find yourself in this situation again and again.

Every time you do a project you’ll need to figure out what your goal is, what you need to achieve it and how you are going to report on progress.

It’s very easy to do this the wrong way.

The wrong way starts by setting an arbitrary goal.

For example you decide that you’re going to blog daily and set a goal to write 1,000 words per day.

Is setting that goal enough – is the universe now going to move heaven and earth to make that happen?

Or are you going to have to allocate resources – allocate time for writing.

As Mary Heaton Vorse said “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

If you’re also very dedicated then at the end of each writing day log how many words you’ve written and see if you’re on target and, if not, work harder.

That sounds entirely reasonable, doesn’t it?

But that approach which seems on the surface normal and sensible hides many problems.

The first thing is that you can set goals for yourself – that might be ok.

But if you’ve picked a goal that is not based on data – what happens when you keep failing to meet your goal?

Do you give up, work harder or change the goal?

If it’s not a goal you’ve picked – if it’s been assigned to you and, worse, if your income depends on meeting that goal what are you going to do?

This happens quite a lot with salespeople.

They are set an unachievable target which they sign up to because any salary is better than no salary.

Then, they either manage their numbers so they can hit their targets or work their time planning to fail and then leave to do the same thing in another role.

If you don’t find yourself agreeing with any of this you’re not alone – we are conditioned as a society to believe that goals are good and setting aspirational goals – stretch goals – is the way to motivate and improve.

It’s just that all too often the opposite happens.

So, what should you do if you really want to improve?

That starts with understanding what’s going on – by understanding the voice of the process.

Let’s go back to that blog example.

A few years ago I decided to write every day – when I could anyway.

That, I suppose, was a goal or a target.

I tried setting myself wordcount goals – a few hundred words, maybe 500.

But I quickly got bored and stopped counting.

The way I write and publish, however, means that isn’t a problem.

As the sources are all in text files we can use simple UNIX tools to analyse them.

It didn’t take much time at all to count the words in each post and chart them as shown in the picture above.

I’ve been lazy and drawn averages and upper and lower control lines rather than working them out – because you can see what’s going on pretty clearly.

For the first 300 or so posts the average word count was around 500 – with a peak of little over 1,000.

In the next 200 or so days the average is closer to 600, with the exception of an excitable period where the posts seem a little longer – I can’t remember why.

The point is that this data is the voice of my writing process.

It’s not being collected actively but it can easily be created from the process itself.

There’s no logging required.

This shows that I can write between 600 and 800 words in a sitting most of the time.

As measurements go that’s quite useful for understanding how my process works.

The same approach – getting measurements out of activity without manual logging is what makes devices like the Fitbit and Apple Watch a good idea.

And wouldn’t it be nice if you could do your day to day work and all the metrics could fall out of activity without you doing anything – so that you could understand what normal looks like?

Because the point is this – once you know what normal looks like you can work on your system and try to improve it.

And the improvements will show up in your measurements, not because you’re trying to achieve a target but because you’re working on the system.

Your improvements are coming from learning more about the system you’re a part of.

And, to end with another Deming quote: “Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.”


Karthik Suresh

What Should You Ask Your Customer To Put In A Testimonial?


Monday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It only serves to show what sort of person a man must be who can’t even get testimonials. No, no; if a man brings references, it proves nothing; but if he can’t, it proves a great deal. – Joseph Pulitzer

Have you ever done some work that’s delivered a healthy return to your clients – a result you can both be pleased with?

Have you also thought of asking them for a testimonial – and then parked the thought, a little embarrassed by the idea and not quite sure where to start?

If you search the Internet for suggestions on what to put in a testimonial you get quite a lot of rubbish.

It starts with the advice that you should ask for a testimonial – I suppose that makes sense so far.

But then you get a selection of poorly drafted email templates that say little or a long list of questions that can act as writing prompts.

The problem with both approaches is that they lack focus.

If you ask someone to just write whatever they want they’ll either find it hard to get started or write just enough to make you go away.

If you provide a list of questions then they’ll answer them, but in the process probably end up losing the will to live a little.

The thing with writing something like a testimonial is that you need it to tell a story – but it needs to be a complete one.

So maybe it’s worth thinking of an outline to help structure it.

The outline in the picture above is a combination of a writing approach from the book Can Do Writing and Neil Rackham’s Spin Selling model.

In Can Do Writing the authors suggest that you should start writing every document with a purpose statement.

A purpose statement addresses the following questions:

  1. What type of document is this? – testimonial
  2. What does the document do? – describes
  3. What information does the audience need? – savings/results
  4. Who is the audience? – prospective customers
  5. What will the audience do with the information? – trust it

A purpose statement for a testimonial might read something like this:

The purpose of this testimonial is to describe how the XYZ company saved $X00,000 from our manufacturing operations through their consulting work.

An introductory paragraph using this kind of format puts the results up front – and tells prospective customers who manufacturing firms that there is interesting information coming up.

Now, follow up with the SPIN model.

This starts with describing the situation.

We were faced with rising manufacturing costs in our main product division.

Then follow up by examining the problems caused by this situation.

The increased costs at a time of budget restrictions meant we had to stop bidding on certain projects.

Examine what the implications are of making such a decision.

The reductions in expected profits meant we were considering painful headcount reductions.

And how did what you did help?

XYZ consultants identified $X00,000s of savings in our processes through optimising shifts and reducing machine use.

Now clearly I know very little about manufacturing operations – but if you ask your client to write something that follows that approach you’ll end up with four very usable paragraphs.

And that’s probably all you need for a useful and persuasive testimonial.

Now you could write this for them – but it’s probably better in their own words.

And even better on letter-headed paper.


Karthik Suresh

How To Supercharge Your Customer Development Process


Sunday, 9.19pm

Sheffield, UK

I’m not a tech guy. I’m looking at the technology with the eyes of my customers, normal people’s eyes. – Jack Ma

What are the questions you should ask yourself when thinking about a new startup?

The reason I ask this is because there is an increasing consensus that the way to help cities and areas is to encourage startups that will create jobs and economic growth.

There’s a lot of money out there waiting for a good idea – but how do you know when you have a good idea?

The same questions can be asked if you want to improve how an existing process works.

So, is there a model that can help – a model that may help question an idea and figure out whether it’s worth doing or better abandoning?

The model above is a start, adapted from systems thinking ideas that have made their way into a number of methods – including the lean startup approach which talks about customer development.

Let’s see how this might work with a thought experiment.

Type in “startup idea” into Google and you find a website with thousands of ideas.

Let’s pick one for a graphical restaurant reservation system and see if the questions help.

The system, in the model, is not the system we are building.

Before we build a system to do something we first need to understand the system we are serving.

So, the system that we should look at first is the restaurant itself.

What is the purpose of a restaurant?

It is, presumably, to fill its tables with customers for the sittings it has available.

Or, in transformation terms, change customers wishing to have a meal together to satisfied customers.

Which then leads you to ask what does customer demand look like?

Is this a top end restaurant that is booked up months in advance?

Or is it the kind of place people tend to wander into?

If you want to develop this app you need to understand the nature of the customer demand.

Which probably means spending some time talking to restaurants, maybe even working there for a while to see how it works.

Now, what sort of data will help you understand this restaurant better?

Is it how long it takes to get a customer a booking from when they call?

That’s probably not useful – once you get through on the phone it’s probably fairly quick.

And you don’t know what you don’t know – like how many calls were dropped because they couldn’t get through.

Maybe the measure is how much time staff spend on the phone instead of serving customers?

Let’s say you could record something like that, then you’d be able to suggest than a website where you could book a table would be a good idea – that would improve the process.

And finally, you could figure out if it’s worth doing.

At a large pizza chain, for example, it is worth doing – which is why they do it now.

You can go online and book a table for a time you want and that’s great.

For a single owner-managed restaurant, not so much.

Now, this idea is back from 2012 – so there are applications that do just this.

What’s weird is that this suggestion is one of the top results…

But, the point is that if you came along with a startup idea for this kind of app you’d do well to think hard about points 2 and 3.

It’s your study of customer demand and the associated process required to serve that demand that will help you understand if there is something you can do.

And this suggests that your customer development activity should perhaps be reframed as action research rather than market research.

In market research you try and find out stuff – using tools like surveys, interviews and so on.

With action research you get into the details – immerse yourself in the actual work in order to understand what’s going on and come up with a theory.

When you see customer development as an opportunity to carry out research at an organisation – research that will help the organisation understand what’s going on in more detail – you may get a chance to get a much deeper insight into what’s going on.

Perhaps the first bit of any investment into a startup should be seen as an investment in research – an investment from which possible improvement ideas are generated and which then make their way into startups that create scale and growth.

In regions and cities and innovation hubs around the world, formalising such an approach may help unlock both productivity improvements and innovation.

But even in your own startup using a systems thinking approach is probably worth doing.


Karthik Suresh

How Can You Find Opportunities To Create Value?


Saturday, 6.38pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil! –Golda Meir

How do you know if you’re doing the right thing right now in work and life?

For example, is your business working as well as it should? Are your staff happy? Are you pleased with your work and responsibilities? Are you losing weight?

And if not, what are you going to do to change the situation?

It’s tempting to think that what’s needed is to work harder, to get others to work harder or work smarter, create better incentives or set up rules and procedures.

So, how do you get started doing that?

It probably looks something like this.

Lets get in a room, set up a flipchart and do some brainstorming.

Let’s get some divergent thinking under way to see all the things out there.

No idea is too silly – let’s capture all of them.

Then, from the list that comes up, we can prioritise, rank, order and create lists of actions. Let’s get the convergent engine going to focus on the things we need to do and set some goals and action plans.

Good. That’s it then. Go off an execute and we’ll review progress in six months.

That’s your typical intervention process – probably being carried out right now by a team somewhere in the world.

But, as I am discovering, there is a problem with this whole process.

And it has to do with the difference between what is, what you think is, and what should be.

The problem with focusing on what you think is going on

When you spend time thinking about what is going on you build a model of what you believe reality looks like.

For example, you might draw process flows, use sticky notes to map how things move along or where the capability sits.

All these tools are a way to capture reality in a model.

What happens when you capture reality exactly?

Well, you’re obviously not going to, because reality is quite detailed, but if you did, your model would be the same as reality, and you might as well look at reality.

Hopefully this makes sense but if not.

Say reality is A.

Say you build a model of reality, B, that is an exact match of reality.

Then, by definition, B = A. You don’t need B, just look at A.

A model of reality is always much less than reality ( B << A ) – it’s a simplification through necessity.

Spend time looking at the actual situation

That’s why if you want to understand what happens in real life don’t interview people – go and look for yourself.

Look around the a factory, follow a piece of work as it travels from hand to hand and see what happens to it.

Don’t worry too much about documenting every step – the document will be out of date very soon anyway.

The point is to spend some time looking at reality for what it is.

What’s important is what should be going on

If you must create a model you need something that helps you understand what should be going on.

It’s a conceptual model – one that you can then compare to reality.

Say this is C, then what you are doing is comparing C to A and asking questions like are we doing the right things here?

How does this work in practice?

If all this seems quite pedantic let’s look at how it might actually work in your business.

Imagine you want to start a B2B startup and are looking for an opportunity – how can you go about doing that?

What model should you have in mind?

As an example, I’ve drawn a model that builds on recent reading I’ve been doing on systems thinking.

It starts by asking who is your customer’s customer?

If you want to offer a B2B service you need to figure out why someone will buy what you have.

It’s not enough to show that you’re going to save them money.

In most cases, the money you save them will flow right out again to their customers in the form of lower prices.

What you’ve got to ask is how what you do helps your customer to add value to their customer.

That’s why things like websites and brochures are seen as obvious things a business needs – they need them to communicate to their customers and explain how they add value in the first place.

Your product that offers cheaper printing has a less compelling offer than a competitor who offers market research and advice on competitive positioning that informs the copy.

So, what does value work look like?

This is the key question – what can you do which will deliver results that makes your customer happy?

Let’s say you want to help a customer with a direct mail campaign.

You could just charge them a 6 figure sum with no promises.

Or you could show them a route to developing, testing and rolling out a campaign that invests progressively in what works, and where their losses are low but the upside is unlimited.

If you do that you’re doing work that has results – value work.

But do you have what it takes to do that work?

Many people believe that the answer is yes and you can figure out how to get the work done when you get the contract.

That’s all very well, but you’re simply setting yourself up for failure if you don’t have the expertise in place.

Then again, maybe you need to develop the expertise and this is an opportunity to do just that.

As an individual or business owner your job really is to get the expertise needed to the point where value work can be done.

And it’s a simple question really – can you make that happen?

Because if not, failure work shows up

Failure work is work that has to be done because something is going wrong somewhere.

If you don’t know how to design a stationery package and take on the work what you create will look off – and the client won’t be happy.

For example, I look back at business cards I designed myself and cringe at how the alignment is wrong – something a professional would never do.

But that’s a small problem.

What if you make a mess of that million pound property portfolio?

That’s a bigger mess and is going to cost you in time, money and angst to sort out.

Finally – what’s happening in reality?

If you look at the four points that make up the model – understand the customer’s customer, define value work, obtain the expertise required and be alert for failure work – you can compare this to what happens in reality in your business.

But of course, we’re looking at a startup example – something that doesn’t exist in real time…

Which is why you can answer these questions best in a business you already understand – which is why it makes sense to look for value within your sphere of competence – something Warren Buffett would advise.

If you’re experienced at farming and land use then an software app is not the best place for you to have a go.

You could learn – but be open to the prospect of paying for that knowledge by making mistakes along the way.

What all this boils down to is that we should probably be clear on exactly what lens, what perspective we’re taking at any one time.

Are we looking at what should be – what our customer’s experience is when they get the benefits of value work?

Or are we looking at what is – what is actually going on and whether we’re doing value work or simply fixing the results of failures.

Because, at the end of all this work, we want to end up in a better place.


Karthik Suresh