Customers As Consultants: Ask Them Questions and Listen to Their Responses

Who are your customers? Do you know what they want? Do you know what they think about you and your products and services? If you don't, you have some work to do.

It's critical that you know your customers, so that you can give them what they want. You must be proactive. Instead of waiting for your customers to start leaving you and wondering why they are heading to your competitors, you must research their needs and determine their opinions of your business.

As soon as I mentioned the word research, most of you are probably thinking, "Oh, great. Now he wants me to spend a lot of money; money I can't spare."

The type of research I am talking about doesn't have to cost you anything. And it basically involves two steps:

Ask. If you really want to know how you can improve your business, ask your customers. Each time you have contact with a customer, engage her in a conversation. Did she find everything she needed? If she needed help or advice, did she get it? Did she encounter any problems while doing business with your organization? Does she have any complaints or suggestions she would like to share with you?

You might also ask if the customer was served in a timely and knowledgeable fashion. If the response is positive, great; if it is not, it probably indicates the need for additional for your employees.

Also do a little probing. For example, you might ask a customer if there is anything he might have purchased if you had it in stock. Maybe he came in for a certain product, but also would have purchased some complementary items if you carried them. In his response you could identify additional products that could increase your business.

Make it easy for your customers to share their opinions with you. Include an 800 phone number on sales receipts and invoices, and have that number answered by employees, not machines. Provide customers with an email address they can use to contact you and share their thoughts.

Listen. If you don't listen to what your customers are telling you, you might as well not ask for their opinions. Acknowledge what they are telling you and thank them for taking the time to do so. Also, assure them that you will act on what they have said. Most customers don't offer suggestions or make complaints because they don't think anything will be done with that information. They simply take their business elsewhere.

I'll give you a personal example: While staying at a $450-a-night in California recently, I informed the staff that there were ants in the bathroom. Nothing was done to correct the situation. Needless to say, I will not be returning to that hotel.

It's critical that you acknowledge what customers tell you and that you implement those suggestions you determine will improve your business and your service. If many of your customers are telling you the same thing--that your hours are inconvenient, that the quality of a specific product is poor, or that your employees are rude--you know you've got a problem and should act quickly to make changes.

You also must thank customers for taking the time to share their opinions. You can do so verbally or in writing, and you can give a gift card or discount to customers to thank them for their feedback. When customers feel that you value what they have to say, they will be more loyal to you.

Your customers are the experts when it comes to improving your business. Look at them as consultants who will help you make the changes that will keep them coming back to you and that will draw new customers to you. Let them help you drive your business to new heights.

John Tschohl, the internationally recognized service strategist, is founder and president of the Service Quality Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Described by USA Today, Time, and Entrepreneur as a "customer service guru," he has written several books on customer service and has developed more than 26 customer-service training programs that have been distributed throughout the world.

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