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Talk with your customers — inside and out!!!

To really know where you need to take your products, services or company, it’s important to understand what your customers see, feel, and/or think.  I intentionally used all three words.  Some people are very visual; some are more feeling oriented; some are more cerebral in their approach to life.  If you ask me, “How do you feel about our products?” you will get a blank stare and silence for too many seconds.  But, ask me, “What did you think about our product?” and you will likely get a tirade of good and bad with ideas for improvement.  It’s important to identify how your customer approaches everything and modify your approach to match what works for them.  This is a big problem with comment cards and on-line surveys.  No matter how carefully you ask the question, you are going to make it difficult for some number of your customers to respond and give you accurate feedback.  The best way is to interview your customers.  Then, if properly trained, the people doing the interviewing can modify their questions along the way to elicit a good response.  Having come from an engineering background, I like to see all engineers have the opportunity to talk with customers and understand “first hand” what the customer wants.  Everyone in a company should have a better understanding of what the customer wants.  You would be surprised at how easy it is to give people the opportunity.  When a customer comes to visit your facility, ASK if they will talk to a group of employees and tell them about their company and their challenges and take some questions.  Have your people spend 15 minutes a week making just 1-3 phone calls to customers.  Let your employees see the results of any surveys or interviews.  Publish information on customers in any internal newsletters you have going to employees.  So far, I’ve focused on the external customer, the one that “pays the bills” by buying your product or service.  But, there are other important customers that affect your costs.  These are your internal customers.  It’s important for people to understand what their individual department is producing or what service they are providing to another in the company.  The classic example is the person preparing a report that takes 10 hours per month to produce, but no one is using.  Not only do you waste the cost of 10 hours preparing the report, you waste the time of lots of people taking time to look at an e-mail and choose to delete it or not.  Seconds lost by tens or hundreds of people add up to “real time” waste.  Some of the best insights in my career have come from putting together small teams of people and going out to interview our internal customers.  Use open ended questions, take notes, LISTEN and don’t talk.  Resist the urge to defend what you do.  Whether internal or external, it’s important to feel, see and understand what your customers think, feel and see.  [Was it a little uncomfortable not having the words line up?]  Many of us find it difficult or uncomfortable to talk with another person and ask open ended, challenging questions.  But, it is essential if you want to improve your business internally and grow it externally.  So, get on the phone or get our of your cubicle, office or work station and go talk with the person using your product or service.  Get out there and Just ASK — Always Seek Knowledge!!!™