In this episode of The Chemical Show, host Victoria Meyer delves into the importance of engaging customers early on to de-risk business strategy. Victoria shares valuable insights and strategies for effectively engaging customers and stakeholders during key business changes and decisions. Discussing the benefits of introducing a new product or service and involving customers early in the development process, Victoria explores the barriers and fears that may prevent business leaders from seeking customer feedback and provides strategies to overcome them. 

Learn more about the following in this episode:

  • Why early Customer and Stakeholder Engagement matters
  • Managing Risk – a key leadership role
  • Engaging your customers to build ambassadors 
  • Time is money: Ask the right questions early, to increase success later
  • How to engage your customers

Using real-life examples from industry leaders like Shell and Ford Motor Company, Victoria emphasizes the need for customer and stakeholder engagement to inform decisions, test assumptions, and create successful strategies. Join Victoria for this insightful episode to learn how proactive customer engagement can help de-risk your business and build strong relationships with your target market.

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Listen to this episode:


Engage Customers Early to De-Risk Your Business Strategy

Hi, this is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. This is a Thursday Quick Hitter episode where I cover a short specific topic related to business. Today’s topic, engaging your customers and stakeholders early in order to de-risk your business strategy. Now, when we’re talking about business strategy, what I’m really talking about is the introduction of new products, entering new markets or perhaps making a new investment.

” My career, your career, the experience of others around us is littered with great ideas that didn’t get executed very well, part of which is because we didn’t understand our customers response.”

This episode came about when I read a recent Reuters article about NIMBY (Not In My Backyard). So the story behind this, and I’ll link it in our show notes so that you guys have access to it, is Ford Motor Company is making a significant investment in Michigan for an electric vehicle operation. Significant investment brings a lot of jobs, great for the economy, new energy transition related items, awesome, right? Not so much. They’re facing a lot of problems and a lot of challenges because people say, “Well, we don’t really want it here.” That’s a whole other story, in the sense of whether that goes forward or whether it does not.

But the thing that stood out for me was a quote that said, “This whole thing would be different if they had brought the community into the discussion.” That was a quote from Glenn Kowalski, who’s a retired engineer and one of the local leaders of the group that’s fighting the project. They felt in this instance like they hadn’t been heard, they hadn’t been spoken to.

Community engagement and acceptance of anything is a significant risk for any project going forward. Shell‘s new asset in Pennsylvania is also facing some challenges recently related to the startup of that polyethylene plant. I’m very familiar with it. I led the early commercial development of the polyethylene business and commitment to that site and the development of that project, so I know that Shell engaged the community quite heavily and yet there still seems to be some gaps. So when we take those pieces together and we think about what you are trying to do in your business and what others are trying to do in their business, getting that customer and stakeholder engagement early and often is really critical to de-risk that strategy, that new product, that investment.

As business leaders, we are trained and expected to make decisions based on a lot of assumptions. We like to call them educated guesses or as leadership assessments like to frame it, making decisions with imperfect information. That works and it’s awesome and it’s appropriate in many circumstances. Where we go wrong, however, is when we assume rather than ask our employees, our customers, suppliers or other stakeholders what they find valuable and important before making significant strategic decisions. My career, your career, the experience of others around us is littered with great ideas that didn’t get executed very well, part of which is because we didn’t understand our customers response.

Even today, I regularly work with chemical companies and business leaders who are implementing a new strategy for growth. Whether it’s moving into a new market, implementing a new product or service, or repositioning their current business offerings, they are determined to make it happen and are confident in their success. One of the first questions I like to ask is, which customers have you talked with? Are they interested in your new product or service offering? What do they think? What did they tell you? Unfortunately, a lot of times the answer is not really or not quite or some variant of it.

What could be a variant? Well, my product is not ready, so I don’t want to get them disappointed. Our leadership hasn’t approved the project, it’s still confidential and so I don’t want to talk with future customers about it. We’re going to talk to them in the next phase of development. All valid points of view. The concern around confidentiality and readiness is appropriate. Yet without asking your customers some key questions, you have no idea whether they’re going to be interested, whether it fits their current and their future business needs, and you lack the opportunity to get them excited, committed and supporting you. So you are spending significant time, money and resources on a highly uncertain outcome.

It’s risky, and a key role in leadership is managing risk, asking good questions and getting early input from your customers and other stakeholders. It de-risks the decision or the strategy. It also helps you get your customers committed. They feel like they’ve been part of the process, they’re excited, they’re looking forward to the new product, they’re looking forward to the new service, they are ready to buy in and support you. The quickest way I’ve found is to really invite them in early, gain their buy in, build ambassadors and make them part of that design process. We’re going to talk about how you can make that happen.

What prevents this from happening?

But first, let’s talk about what prevents that from happening. There’s a few things and these are reasons that I’ve heard many times. I’ll be honest, I’ve probably said them a few times myself.

One of the biggest concerns I’ve heard from people in terms of getting customer input on certain new adventures, whether it be a product or a service or a business, is number one, concern that they won’t be able to adopt any of the customers feedback and then disappoint them. It’s kind of the, “Well, if they tell me that I should do something and I don’t they’re going to get mad at me.” No, they won’t, and we’re going to talk about how to manage that. You can address that risk. But this concern that you won’t be able to adopt any or all of their feedback is one of the barriers that holds us back.

Number two, not knowing who to approach, whether it’s the individual in the company or the specific company. Not knowing who to approach.

Three, not knowing what to say or how to ask. There are many ways of doing this, confidentially, getting insights without giving away your full plans or the fact that you are not sure that you have plans yet. But not knowing what to say or how to ask is one of the things that holds people back.

And then fear of rejection. This maybe should go at the top of the list because the reality is we are all fearful of rejection. No one wants to hear that their great idea isn’t so great. Yet when you invite your customers in, when you ask your customers, your suppliers, your stakeholders, their feedback early, the benefits outweigh the downsides.


What’s the benefit of engaging them early in the development process?

Some of those benefits are design insights, so concerns and ideas that you would not otherwise have identified, whether it inform or function or the product specifications, you understand those early and can do something with it.

Commitment and ongoing support, building ambassadors early is so critical and so important.

Getting them ready to buy or try your new product or service. Building anticipation. So they are wondering and begging and waiting for the day that it’s going to be in production, that it’s going to be commercially available.

I see this, and on behalf of several clients I’ve talked with companies to help them understand, “Hey, what do you think about this new thing?” And what I find is really interesting is the benefits that the originator perceives versus what’s actually important to the customers. This happens a lot in green chemistry, you may say, “Oh this great benefit of sustainability.’ Well, that’s nice and that’s interesting to customers, but sometimes they may say for me the value is supply chain certainty. It is cost reduction. It is something else.

When you put your assumptions on the table and what you think those benefits are and compare it with what your customer thinks, you get a better answer. You get their answer, which ultimately helps you shape your product and helps you sell in the future.

What’s the ultimate risk of not asking the right questions at the right time? It is money. Time is money. By asking the right questions, you are more likely to have a successful launch. When you don’t ask any questions, it’s risky. It is uncertain. You don’t know where this is going. So you want to bring your customers in early.


How do you counter those concerns and gain benefits early in your redesign or market entry strategy?

We talked a little bit about where some of those concerns are that people have about bringing in their customers early and asking them questions, inviting them in, getting their feedback early to de-risk your strategy or your new product. How do you do that?

Number one, engage those trusted customers early and frame it as an in development product or solution. Say something like “If we could have a product that does X, would that be interesting to you?” You’re going to find out some information. “If we could double the size of your volumes because we have more availability, if you’re thinking about an investment, would that be interesting to you?” You can frame things in a way that makes it very clear that this is still in development. I make no promises, I tell you no lies, and I’m not giving away anything confidential. That’s one aspect.

Another way to approach this, inquire about their current challenges and how the new product or solution could be a problem solver or game changer. So if this is their problem, what would solve it? Offering up some questions, putting your product, your service, your strategy in place to help address that.

Third, using an independent third party to survey or engage targeted customers and markets on a blind or confidential basis. So there’s a number of companies that do this really well. I’ve used companies like that before. Back in my Shell polyethylene example, we used MaCio. You guys have heard from Kevin Huntsman on the show. I’ll link his episode if you’re interested in listening to him, because they do great work. We actually had them integrate a couple of questions specifically for us in their overall market survey work that they were doing around polyethylene. Supremely helpful, independent, third party wide data. There is ways of bringing that information in.

Finally, it’s about being receptive to change. When you’re asking questions and getting answers, you have to be ready to do something with that. Take those insights, use them to inform decisions, test your assumptions, and ultimately maybe create something new. A different approach. Refine and tune to really de-risk your strategy, your new product, your new market, your new investment, wherever your strategy is taking you. Use your customer insights to help you de-risk it and to make it a better outcome.

So that’s what I have for you guys today. Tell me, how do you engage your customers and stakeholders when you’re making key business changes, business decisions and executing new strategies? I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading today. Keep reading, keep following, keep sharing and we will talk with you again soon.



Additional links:

Reuter’s Article: Focus: The manufacturing backlash: No factory in my backyard

Podcast Episode – Kevin Huntsman of Mastio: Data-Based Insights Into The Customer Experience With Kevin Huntsman

Shell Chemicals

Ford Motor Company