Customer Conversations are Worth Their Weight In Gold
by Linda Sharp
customer conversations
Focused conversations uncover real customer needs
The most important thing to remember during difficult economic conditions is to stay close to customers. Now more than ever, your customers, whether external or internal, need you to pay attention and show that you care. One of the best ways to do that is through the art of conversation. Over the past few years, we have seen many organizations rely increasingly on online survey methods to solicit feedback from their customers and employees. While relatively inexpensive and easy to use, technology cannot substitute for conversations. Surveys can give us plenty of data, but they are also static and often miss the real motivation and meaning behind the feedback. A focused conversation is how we find out what is really going on with customers and what they need to feel more satisfied and be more successful.

Relationships are golden
The advantage of a real-time conversation is two-fold: 1) it complements the customer feedback received from online surveys and other data gathering methods to make it more actionable and 2) it helps us deepen the customer relationship. Relationships are golden. When we have real relationships with our customers they are more likely to give us the benefit of the doubt, help us out when needed and stay with us when times are tough.

Focused customer conversations need thoughtful planning, careful listening and analyses, and good follow-through. When planning conversations with your internal or external customers, here are some tips to help you get what you need to build positive, productive relationships:

► Generate opportunities for frequent conversations. Rather than relying on annual (or even less frequent) customer satisfaction surveys, list the most critical interactions your organization has with customers throughout the year. Also, develop the questions you would like customers to answer and parse them out in focused conversations over the course of time as you engage in each of your critical interactions. Keep a record of those conversations so you can begin to see patterns or trends in the feedback.
 
► Coordinate research efforts across your organization. To better leverage your resources and avoid duplication of effort, we recommend that you plan and orchestrate the research your organization does with customers so that all departments can benefit from the insights gained. Develop research standards that managers and departments can agree to, including whom you should target, what questions are important, how you will analyze and distribute the feedback.
 
► Balance quantitative data with qualitative data. According to a study referenced by Gartner Group, 95% of companies collected customer feedback, but few did anything with it. The study showed that only 50% alerted their staffs, 30% used the insight gained, only 10% made improvements, and a mere 5% told their customers of the change they made. When you ask for feedback, be prepared to act. Share the insights that you gained and your plans for changes you will make as a result of the feedback. Solutions may involve clarifying roles and responsibilities, redesigning work processes, skill building training for employees, developing new products or services, improving communication or partnering more closely with others. If you don't act, it could be worse than not asking in the first place.
 
► Take action on the feedback you receive. According to a study referenced by Gartner Group, 95% of companies collected customer feedback, but few did anything with it. The study showed that only 50% alerted their staffs, 30% used the insight gained, only 10% made improvements, and a mere 5% told their customers of the change they made. When you ask for feedback, be prepared to act. Share the insights that you gained and your plans for changes you will make as a result of the feedback. Solutions may involve clarifying roles and responsibilities, redesigning work processes, skill building training for employees, developing new products or services, improving communication or partnering more closely with others. If you don't act, it could be worse than not asking in the first place.
 
► Ask Why-again and again. Most research questions focus on whom, what and how. Asking top priority customers to tell you "WHY" brings more nuance, meaning, and intelligence to the delivery of your products and services. Here are a few key areas of questioning that you will want to include in your conversations. Be sure to follow up their answers with "Why" to learn even more!
  • What customer outreach/communication efforts do your customers appreciate most during these challenging times?
  • How can you make it easier for your customers to do business with you?
  • What are your customers most concerned about? What opportunities or plans do they have for enhancing their offerings to their customers?
  • What do your customers need and want? What do they value enough in your offering to keep them from cutting back or taking their business elsewhere?
The answers to WHY will let you know where you stand with customers and will help you determine what to deliver in order to strengthen your relationships. These critical findings will also give you the nuance you need to differentiate your product/service in the marketplace. By committing to understanding WHY, you increase the likelihood customers will continue to do business with you. Even in challenging times.
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