The single most important thing you can do to grow your business.

First let me say that I’ve been guilty of what I’m about to share with you. In the past, as the founder and owner of a successful marketing firm in Milwaukee, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about what my customers want and how they buy. My biggest mistake was thinking that my company could do no wrong when it came to servicing clients. I thought we were the best and I knew my clients knew it. The sky was the limit and my ego was pushing this limit to the max.

The irony is that my team regularly developed and executed customer surveys for our clients but we never did one for ourselves. After a particularly perplexing client phone call, I called my friend, Bill Lowell from Business Development Directives and asked him to perform executive interviews with a random sample of my clients. Something wasn’t right and I realized I was too close to the problem to put my finger on it.

Bill performed interviews with thirty past and present clients. While we scored very high in overall satisfaction, around 98%, our survey went beyond satisfaction metrics and focused on where we could improve; attitudes about pricing, buying criteria and more. After all, even a satisfied customer will still buy from someone else if the circumstances are right. We learned that many of our clients also bought from our competitors – including some we had never heard of before! I learned that clients wanted to see more of me – and less of a certain staff member who was described by more than one client as “obnoxious”. The biggest thing we discovered is that many of our clients thought our pricing was too low!

Since then, I’ve come to personally understand the importance of working with customers to refine, improve and focus marketing and sales efforts. I’ve developed a process that moves beyond mere “customer satisfaction” and provides answers to the questions that keep you up at night.

You might be wondering why I brought in Bill to do my survey when we were in the business of doing this type of work. The reason is simple. This is one of the few tasks companies should never attempt to do themselves. Of course I encourage you to have regular dialogs with your customers to gain insight and create strong personal bonds. However, customers are reluctant to tell you about issues that they think may insult you or hurt your feelings – the very issues that are hurting your business! By performing anonymous interviews with an objective, third party, customers are more willing to be completely candid.

Not just a conversation – an Executive Interview
Furthermore, a casual conversation is much different from the executive interviews performed during the research process. This process produces very specific data used to spot trends. Each question must be carefully developed and delivered in exactly the same way to ensure that respondents are not “led” by the researcher to a biased answer. The survey is done in a tightly controlled manner and is designed to answer specific questions.

Generally the surveys I implement are designed to uncover the criteria and process used to select one company over another. Is reputation more important than price? Is location important? Is industry specialization the key factor? Once this criteria is identified and ranked, we’ll ask how we compare to competitors based on this criteria. Using a combination of structured and open ended questions, (remember, this is a conversation, not an interrogation), we get down to what is really important to your customers; how you can do better, what they really think of your business, how they make buying decisions, other needs they may have, who your competitors really are, and much more. Each survey is tailored to what you need to know to sell more, increase profit and close more deals.

The million dollar question
It’s difficult to predict the outcome of these surveys. Typically, we find out that our clients’ perceptions and assumptions are about 90 percent accurate. They know their business and generally make good decisions. What makes the biggest impact is the 10 percent they are getting wrong and the customers are more than happy to set us straight. For one client, we learned that a majority of their customers felt that a certain employee’s involvement was critical to continue doing business with my client. In other words, if this employee left, the customers would leave with him. Another client discovered that a customer was buying from a competitor simply because they didn’t know my client provided this type of product. This resulted in an additional $2.5 million dollars in revenue – simply because we asked the question!

Customer surveys should be a regular part of your operations. Done properly, they can have immense impact on the success of your business. There are no shortcuts here. The good news is that your customers are chomping at the proverbial bit to tell you what’s on their minds. All you have to do is ask.


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