By Andrew Sobel and Olivier Jacob
Many executives tell me, "Of course we listen to our customers - we see them every week!"
But these daily interactions, while important, don't provide the kind of in-depth information and feedback you need about the customer's evolving needs and perception of your relationship.
Here are eight ways to start listening more consistently and carefully to your customers:
- Listening posts. Every interaction a customer has with you and your company is an opportunity to learn important information about them. Listening is not only done during your own meetings with customers but also when they interact with your personal assistant, your receptionist, your most junior associates, and so on. Are you taking advantage of these interactions to create a good customer experience and learn more about the customer's needs or interests?
- Account Reviews. Arrange an annual or semi-annual account review with the client to get feedback on the relationship and their experience of working with your company.
- Independent reviews. Get an independent company executive, or a neutral third party, to speak with your client to get their candid opinion on your performance.
- Executive Summits. Have a senior executive from your company meet with the client's CEO, or another senior executive at the appropriate level, to discuss their overall strategy and goals and how you can support them in achieving them.
- Market research. Periodically, use market research to get a sense of customer needs, perspectives and views of both you and the competition. This kind of survey - which can solicit customer perceptions of your service levels, innovation, quality, etc. - doesn't have to be done every year. - does not need to be done every year.
- Ultimate question. Consider asking your customers the "ultimate question" - that is, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how enthusiastically would you recommend us to a friend or colleague?" (This was developed by Fred Reichfeld at Bain & Company). Remember, only scores of 9 and 10 really count - only these customers will share positive word of mouth about you and your company (scores of 1-6 indicate "haters" and 7 and 8 are "neutral" - they will speak neither positively nor negatively about you.
- Frequent communication. Make it simple for a client to tell how they feel about your relationship by seeing them often and always responding positively when they have a fear or frustration. A voice complaint is always a gift. The alternative is for the customer to simply vote with their feet and leave without ever telling you the real reason for their dissatisfaction.
- Good questions. Have more informal conversations with your customer to access their latent needs and frustrations. Gain insights into how you can add more value through questions about their business, not by asking "How can we add more value?" (a question customers can rarely answer). For example:
- "What turns into a critical issue for you in the future?"
- "What part of this initiative is moving the slowest or frustrating you the most?"
- "What topics consume more time than you anticipated?"
- "What would you like to do better or faster for your own clients?"
- "When, and if, you evolve into a new role, what would you like to leave as your legacy?"
Listening to the customer, in short, must be multi-level, systematic, and involve everyone in your company.