In honor of Applied Marketing Science's 30th anniversary, AMS President and Managing Principal John C. Mitchell interviews several long-term AMSians about the company's history, significant memories, and what they wish for the firm in the future. In this first installation, John speaks to AMS Vice Chairman, Gerry Katz.
Tell us about the early days. What kind of work was AMS doing?
In the early days most of our work was consumer-oriented. We played a big role in the mid '90s when Sprint and AT&T were competing over long-distance plans. We did a lot of work with electric utilities. We authored a lot of customer satisfaction measurement systems, the question being “what are the attributes we ought to use to measure satisfaction”? This thing called “Voice of the Customer” research that we pioneered turned out to be the exact right device to figure out what those attributes ought to be.
I was going to ask you about that, the Voice of the Customer is really a flagship and fundamental part of AMS. It can mean a lot of things now, but what was it when you got started?
I have to say in those first 10 years we were doing a lot of missionary work because most people either hadn't heard of Voice of the Customer or had heard of it but didn’t know what it was for. We pretty much followed and continue to follow the principles from the paper that originated the field, The Voice of the Customer, written by John Hauser, AMS Co-Founder, and Abbie Griffin.
What was special about AMS's way of thinking about customer needs that caused it to gain traction in the industry?
The prevailing way of developing new products back then was entirely siloed. By this I mean that every function in a company stayed by themselves. Marketing people were never involved in innovation or new product development. R&D or Engineering would come up with something new and throw it over the wall to marketing and say, “Okay, you guys figure out how to sell this.” This had a very high miss rate. This new idea of innovating in a cross-functional team, was revolutionary but it made sense to people. Anybody who tried it said, "Yeah, this is the way it ought to work." And it's been that way ever since.
What were some of the early successes of AMS?
Well, I mentioned that a lot of our studies were customer-service oriented. When we were working with electric utilities, they got partially deregulated. For the first time in their history they had to start worrying about these strange things called customers and they became very focused on that. We completely changed the hiring practices at one West Coast utility who had been focusing entirely on courtesy and our Voice of the Customer research showed that a certain kind of competence in dealing with online databases was even more important than courtesy.
We also had a great early success with a medical device called a spirometer, which measures lung capacity for people with asthma or other kinds of pulmonary problems. We helped our client develop a new device that leapfrogged the two leaders in the industry and they became the leaders.
We designed a customer satisfaction system for UPS that I understand is still used today, 26 years later.
I know that you've done a lot of work training clients in these principles, and that's really become a large part of what we do at AMS. How did that get started?
I think it was in the late '90s that we were approached by several clients all in the course of a year who said to us, "We really love this methodology that you use for gathering Voice of the Customer, but we'd love to learn to do it ourselves. Can you teach us how to do it?" Like good consultants we said, "Sure, we can do that." The best part was we had clients who reported, "We tried this, and it worked for us." I think that's how it started.
AMS has a pretty long list of loyal clients. Some of whom who have been calling on us for over a decade, time and time again. Why do you think that is?
It's so simple. You do good work and you take good care of your clients. I've always used the phrase about AMS that we're viewed as a user-friendly firm. It happens all the time, after a project people say things like, "Wow, you guys really return your phone calls the same day." And I thought, who wouldn't in the service business? Why wouldn't you? But apparently a lot of vendors don't do that. Our clients say "You're flexible, you listen, it's never my way or the highway." And I'm very proud of that.
What would you say have been some of your most memorable experiences here at AMS?
When new job candidates ask me what I like best about AMS, I always say we work on the most interesting problems you could ever imagine. What have I worked on here? Well, one of the earliest medical device studies I did involved products and services for open heart surgery. The client said to me," Listen Gerry, if you're going to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk." I said, "Well, what do you mean?" He said, "We want you to witness open heart surgery." And we did. That was life changing to me, to be in an OR watching open heart surgery, it was pretty amazing.
I remember a study we did in oil field services. The client got us up at 3:30 in the morning in Austin, Texas and drove us about three and a half hours south to some desert in the middle of south central Texas and we watched oil drilling for a day. We watched testing where they drop these sensors down literally a two-mile hole in the ground, and that was fascinating to me because I had always thought of oil exploration as this kind of brute force thing. It's so technology driven it's unbelievable.