Disruptive Customer Insights That Drive Competitive Advantage

As commoditisation inevitably hits industries, organisations struggle deeply with differentiation and financial growth. Opportunities for competitive advantage are often missed because of misalignment between decision-makers and what customers actually value.

We’ll discuss how “disruptive customer insights” can be applied to drive growth through differentiated strategy, innovation, enhanced customer experience and ultimately deliver financial results.

Joe Urbany, Ph.D. is Professor of Marketing in the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, Illinois. He was previously Associate Dean of Graduate Programs in the College. He received his Ph.D. from Ohio University.

Professor Urbany’s research and large volume of published work focuses on managerial decision-making, competitive strategy and buyer behaviour. He also consults to a wide range of organisations.

He has been cited by several media outlets, including U.S. News and World Report, USA Today, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and in other international media.

Conversation Notes

  • Disruption is not only about change, it’s about opportunity.
  • Disrupt the value that customers feel they deserve, and what they actually receive.
  • The way you beat competitors is to understand customer decision making better than they do. Do this by conceptualising customer needs and work out how that relates to what is provided in your offering.
  • It’s very important to get very focused on each customer and each competitor, that’s where you get the depth of insight and actionable opportunities.
  • There’s nothing more motivating than someone thinking you’re something you’re not. There’s also nothing more motivating than someone not recognising something you are.


“We tend to think of disruption as an ‘external’ focus, but we need to disrupt our internal organisation first. That’s where it all begins.”


Customer insights that drive competitive advantage

Have you ever tried to buy a wedding gift for an acquaintance? Tricky, isn’t it?

You may have an idea of what they might like, but you’re not sure and you want to buy them something they’ll appreciate and use. What about someone a bit closer to you? Maybe a cousin or someone you work alongside every day? Even then, it’s a gamble. What if they don’t like the colour you choose or the gift just doesn’t suit their lifestyle? The only way you can really know for sure is to ask them (or at least pick something that’s on their registry list).

So, what do you do when you want to offer something to your customers? How do you find out what they want so much that they’re willing to choose your product above others and pay for it? Again, there are really only 2 ways to find out. Guess or ask them.

The pros and cons of guessing

Guessing is not all bad. We can learn a lot from observing customer behaviour, informally or formally, over time and analysing it to predict trends. For example, experienced store managers can build up a good picture of what their customers like based on past orders. Market analysis helps to find general patterns as does observing similar organisations.

Within our own organisations, there is a lot of statistical data we can gather through sales patterns, feedback from our sales staff and website analytics. With information like this, we can get fairly close to knowing what our customers are looking for. So, how is it that we can still end up investing in products or services that nobody wants? Or, we get the right products but get the timing or marketing wrong?

According to marketing and consumer behaviour expert, Professor Joe Urbany, the answer lies in our own underlying assumptions and biases. Very often, we end up assuming that what we think we would want if we were in our customer’s shoes is actually what they want – and we’d be wrong. During his presentation, Urbany pointed out:

“People are horrible at trying to predict someone else’s preferences. However, we often have a lot of confidence in our predictions … Also, we tend to be very biased in what we think customers value. This is a human, hard-wired trait.”

Under-utilising available data

Urbany stated that, although most organisations have lots of valuable data available, they are often terrible at integrating sound research results into their decision making. This is because we tend to ignore consumer feedback if it doesn’t match what we think we want to do or if it is critical of what we are currently doing.

There is also a big difference between the way the insights folks value research and the way decision makers value research. As Urbany noted, a lot of the time, these sorts of insights don’t even make the meeting or they get buried in the 70-page report that nobody reads anyway.

The authors of the McKinsey & Company article Capturing value from your customer data agree.

“Most companies (only use) a fraction of the data in their possession. Sprawling legacy systems, siloed databases, and sporadic automation are common obstacles. Models and dashboards may be forced to rely on stale data, and core processes may require considerable manual intervention. Often, too, organizations may not have a clear understanding of the specific outcomes they’re looking to achieve through data optimization. All that is leaving significant value on the table … When it comes to generating measurable value from their data, most organizations have plenty of low-hanging fruit they have yet to harvest.”

How to ask (nicely)

If you simply went out and asked your customers what they want from you, the chances are that they probably couldn’t tell you. It’s too vague a question. Instead, you need to help them by narrowing the focus. Before approaching them, you need to clearly define your customer and your offering. Then estimate what you think they are likely to say. Then go out and ask them specific questions such as:

  • Why they made their choice?
  • What they value in that choice?
  • Why would they choose your business over another (or vice versa)?


The feedback that surprises you is the most valuable as it could disrupt your strategies and lead to increased revenue. After all, if enough customers vocalise a need that is not being met and that you hadn’t anticipated, there’s a golden opportunity right there. That’s the product or service that will help you stand out from your opposition. Providing you ACT ON IT and get it right, of course.


Joe’s Linkedin: Joe Urbany

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This episode forms part of our 2018 series narrative, ‘The Art of Focus’ which is based on the premise that, in an information-dense society, our attention resources have become depleted. The series’ speakers will help us identify and explore the areas in our lives where we may need to regain focus, increase our self-awareness and improve how we interact with those around us.

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