A couple of years ago I was unexpectedly tapped on the shoulder by a large international company to lead their efforts to launch a new challenger brand into the Australian market. It was an intriguing opportunity and after careful consideration I decided to get involved.

As part of the induction process I had to travel overseas to meet the Group CEO who wanted to meet me to “see if I had what it takes to put this new business on the ground”. One of the first questions he asked was ‘the market in Australia is homogeneous, undifferentiated and highly competitive how do you intend to get customers in this environment?” I answered truthfully that at this stage I didn’t know but in 3-4 months I’ll have a much clearer view as well as having some early customers on board.

I made the point that it is never easy to establish something new especially with low brand awareness and, in this case, easily substitutable options for customers. To get to the right answers it’s important not to try and jump too quickly to the end game – this can be expensive and time consuming. It’s better to set up a disciplined regime of questioning and testing small ‘moves’ rapidly and learning as you proceed rather than be held to a more rigid game plan too early on. It’s also necessary to do it this way to allow time to build out and develop a new team into a cohesive unit.

Key to this approach is asking questions – lots of them – to discover the current pain points of customers, where they are being over-charged or under-served and what might influence them to switch their patronage across. While I had some early views, without this information I’d just be guessing as to how we might get new customers on board.

After I explained this I remember pausing and saying “so, no, I don’t know where customers will come from but I hope this explains how I intend to go about finding out.” He smiled and said “ok, fair enough” and then later “get on with it”.

A couple of weeks later feedback filtered back to me that he remarked that it was refreshing that “someone told me the truth rather than trying to bluff me when they didn’t have the answers.”

In the end we got customers – lots of them – and figured out a replicable system to keep doing it. But it wasn’t easy or simple. Where we got them from was different in some ways to what had been originally thought but through the relentless (circular) method we adopted – trial, refine, discard/proceed, recalibrate, scale etc. – we eventually unlocked the points of greatest customer dissatisfaction (and opportunity) in the market-place where we could focus our efforts with compelling and interesting product offers. The team that I was working with was phenomenal during this process.

Along the way we learnt what did and didn’t work. We didn’t have pre-set notions (and weren’t locked to a plan as to where customer acquisitions should come from) and this helped up greatly. We were prepared to learn as we went and prove our conclusions based on real world interactions with customers. In the end what mattered most was that results were delivered, not whether we knew all the answers up front.

These days I still answer some questions with “I don’t know” because it is the truth. But that only starts the process of discovery. I know that discipline, good process, creativity, nimbleness and hard work, when properly applied, are the ‘secret sauce’ that eventually leads to uncovering the very answers that you don’t know now but will uncover soon enough if you are prepared to do the hard work to find out…