Mission Possible: Listening to Customers Is Critical to Success.

When you made your most recent sales call, who did the most talking? You? Or the customer?

Research shows that in the most successful sales calls, it’s the buyer who does most of the talking. So how do you get the buyer to talk? By asking questions, of course. But not just any questions.

It has been customary in sales training courses and seminars to begin with two types of questions, open-ended and closed-ended. Closed-ended questions normally can be answered in a word or two. Often it’s either “Yes” or “No.” However, you can easily see that this type of question and its subsequent responses provide limited information and minimal insight into the buyer’s needs, problem or situation.

Open-ended questions, on the other hand, tend to require an extended response and more often yield valuable revelations about the customer’s situation, his needs and requirements, and what he expects of you as a supplier. You should ask, for example, “Can you tell me how your business works?” Or “Why is this issue a major concern for you?”

Most of us recognize that there are three principal objectives in a modern business enterprise: Increase revenues, decrease costs and increase customer satisfaction. So it is important that we ask more open-ended questions about how our products or services relate to these principal objectives in the context of our customers and clients.

Regardless of customer and industry, our mission is focused on presenting our products and services as the means to fulfill their needs or solve their problems. To more effectively communicate our value proposition and deliver a remarkable experience, we should ask more open-ended questions about what customers look to us to provide. In short, what are their expectations?

Achieving success in sales starts with understanding the customer and knowing how to respond. This is easier said then done. But what many successful organizations and their sales forces have in common is that they understand and respond directly to the needs and desires of their customers. And what better way to unearth those needs and desires than to ask questions?

The best customer feedback mechanism isn’t always a MailChimp survey, Constant Contact email bounce-back, or even a website click (although those do help if tracked properly).

The best way to get customer reaction is to empathetically listen to their responses to our questions that are designed to learn their needs and identify their problems.What will work for your organization, however, depends largely on the size and complexity of your business. Here are some suggestions for effective listening that often are overlooked because of technology, but could help you connect quicker, or possibly reconnect, with your clients and customers:

  • A comment card or equally simple form of soliciting customer information. You must read them and have a process in place to quickly respond. Your regular review of them can identify areas where problems might arise or learn of an employee deserving of special recognition based upon a pleasant customer encounter. Alternatively, repeated comments or complaints should get your immediate attention. This simple mechanism also allows you to collect a customer’s name and contact information and begin to build a database of satisfied customers to keep in touch with. It wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge their time and effort in completing the comment card either. They demonstrated that they cared about you – you should respond in kind.
  • An extension of the comment card is the questionnaire. These require more time for customers to fill out, but can provide valuable insights into new opportunities and even test initiatives you are considering. But you must construct the questions properly. People are usually happy to render an opinion and tell you what they think.

Many firms use a customer service survey after a sale is made or conduct a service call so they can to rank or rate the customer’s opinion of the firm, its personnel, and the overall success (or failure) at meeting their expectations.

Its advantage is developing quantifiable measurements of those key elements of a customer’s experience with you, your firm and buying process. This type of listening provides you and your team with a way to keep score and can build healthy competition between departments in your organization.

With the proliferation of cloud-based applications such as online survey software and questionnaire tools (for example, Typeform, SurveyMonkey, PollDaddy, Qualtrics), businesses now have many low-cost options to deploy a simple survey that establishes contact with a targeted market or an audience segment you can use to collect the reactions of customers.

  • Focus group. If you are interested in really digging down and doing authentic research, a focus group is an excellent method to ask probing questions about your product, your market, how your customer decides what and whether to buy and his expectations of your specific product or service and the markets you serve.

You can also use a focus group to gain more insights about the larger external forces that affect your firm’s products and services and your competition.

The Williamson College of Business Administration at Youngstown State University offers the means to set up and conduct focus groups. We have a multi-camera room to conduct focus groups on topics such as consumer products and services, business-to-business research, usability studies, management issues, personnel issues, jury evaluation and voter perceptions. The marketing department offers faculty who can work with you to determine what you want to learn, provide moderators, guide the design of your discussion, recruit and coordinate participants and report outcomes.

For those organizations in the “bricks-and-mortar” retail sector, a secret-shopper service can be used to covertly conduct observations of the purchasing experience at your locations and report their findings.

Like the simple comment card, this service can often reveal areas where problems might be emerging or mention employees and management who warrant special recognition. It makes a difference to an employee, particularly a young one working in retail part-time, when an owner or manager rewards him for superior customer service.

The takeaway is that listening to our customers, by whatever means available, is critical to success in delivering verifiable customer value and sustaining customer relationships.

It costs organizations anywhere from three to five times as much to attract a new customer than to retain an existing one. So clearly, investments in customer retention can lead to reductions in the costs associated with customer acquisition. At the same time, you also increase the present value a customer contributes to your business over his lifetime of doing business with your company.

Customer retention must be a cornerstone in any selling organization. All too often selling is thought of as only what you want the customer to hear about your firm and your product and its features.

Listening is critical to understanding customer needs and ensuring that you are providing the benefits your customers look for. It reinforces the importance of having your sales force trained to ask the right questions and respond knowledgeably by translating the benefits of your firm’s product or service into value the customer recognizes.

Feel free contact me at Youngstown Business Journal – sales101@business-journal.com.

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