At Hinge, we've published a fair amount of professional services marketing research in the past few years, and just about every week I stumble across a news item or anecdote that perfectly illustrates some aspect of our findings. Often, these stories remind us that we can be doing things better. Today, I'd like to share just one example from a consumer-facing company that many of us know very well: Netflix, the DVD and streaming video service known for its red envelopes and video store killing market share.

Recently, I read an online post from Neil Hunt, Chief Product Officer at Netflix. In response to a query about web interface testing on the question-and-answer site Quora, Hunt explains that Netflix tests almost every aspect of their website:

“We test a lot of algorithmic and data-level variations in movie discovery. We explore large and small variations on the recommendations system, including positioning and tools for input of taste preferences, ways to present recommendations, whether or not explaining recommendations drives credibility, etc.”

He goes on to explain why they invest so heavily in testing:

“We are very proud of our empirical focus, because it makes us humble — we realize that most of the time, we don't know up-front what customers want.”

This admission aligns perfectly with Hinge's research on professional services firms: although most firms think they understand their clients, they usually don't. And this disconnect can severely impact a firm's ability to serve their clients, grow revenues and get referrals.

The sooner you accept that you don't know your customers as well as you thought, the sooner you can uncover new opportunities. So it pays to get to know your clients. Ask them what challenges they are facing. How can you be a better partner? Tell them about your range of services (most customers have no clue). Even better, resolve to survey all your current and past clients on a regular basis. In-depth phone interviews by an impartial third party can reveal all kinds of surprises — things you need to fix and a host of new ways you can help clients. Our findings tell us that firms that research their customers over time are better prepared to respond to their wants and needs. Informed firms are more competitive and more profitable.

Now, what about Netflix's obsession with testing? There are lessons for us there, too.

Human behavior is a tough nut to crack. To get a good response to your marketing, you sometimes have to do some trial and error to see what performs in the real world. I don't advocate testing everything you do. That simply isn't practical or productive in the framework of a busy professional services practice. But you should be testing at least some aspects of your marketing.

If you send out an email newsletter, for instance, segment your list and test different subject lines. If one gets a better open rate, try to understand why. Then next time, use a similarly structured subject line. Repeat. Rinse. The same approach can be applied to most aspects of marketing — from your website to direct mail. It's a great habit that can generate additional leads at little or no cost.

Finally, Hunt offered this little tidbit: “If I had to summarize our learnings in three words: 'simple trumps complete.'” I've advocated taking a simple approach to marketing for a long time. Simple ideas, simply presented are just more compelling and memorable.

So there you have it. Three lessons from a company that's doing thing right.