The Right Questions


Welcome back. The last time we met, we were considering the relatively small number of companies that can benefit from Big Data, versus the large number of us who could prosper from a focused assessment of our business and customers/clients. We started with a series of questions about products and services. This week, let’s take a look at the questions we should be asking our customers.

Customers, of course, are the people who sign our paychecks. Whether we’re selling ingots or intelligence, the customer controls our fate. Surveying customers is like going on a first date, with the same rules leading to a more intimate relationship:

  1. Put them at ease
  2. Ask about them, their lives, their interests.
  3. Don’t race into a discussion about yourself.
  4. Listen and respond to what they say, whether it’s what you were expecting to hear or not.

How do we translate this etiquette into customer perception surveys? Let’s consider a few ideas that almost always work:

Assure them you won’t be selling anything and you’ll honor the confidentiality of their comments.

  1. Ask about the challenges they are facing or expect to face in their business. Find out what they like and what they need, who has been a friend to them and who has failed to deliver on promises, and what behaviors they expect from everyone as a minimum standard of performance.
  2. Avoid direct comparisons between your company and competitors, as well as yes/no questions about your performance. Don’t ask them to rate you or your company specifically. (Yes, that’s part of the mission here, but asking directly will often lead to answers that are adjusted to avoid confrontation, hurt feelings or the appearance of vulnerability.)
  3. Give them time and latitude to open up and share insights. They will answer the unasked questions, if you give them time and a medium to deliver those answers in their words, in their time.

All questions will generate answers, but answers are not enough. What we really seek is insight, which requires a more nuanced approach to interviews. Here are a few examples of questions that work and questions that might only seem to work.

Good questions provide insights into the customer’s world, problems and plans. It might be appropriate to ask:

  • What are the challenges you’re facing right now?
  • How are you planning for the coming year?
  • Which of your vendors is making your life easier and how are they doing it?
  • What is the biggest headache you’d like removed from your work day?
  • What’s the biggest success you’ve seen so far this year?

None of these questions is about the inquiring firm, but the answers will provide actionable insights that the inquiring firm can use. In fact, the answers to these questions can be far more valuable than direct questions like the following:

  • How would you rate us?
  • How would you rate the job I’m doing for you?
  • Do you plan to increase or decrease your activity with us?
  • How do we compare against our competitors?

Direct questions like these can create discomfort or raise defenses. Respondents are likely to deflect or offer innocuous comments if they are, in fact, dissatisfied or considering alternative resources.

The specific questions that work for any company will reflect the company’s strengths, its customer base, competitive issues and industry. Once those questions are selected, thought, it’s not very difficult to gain insights. All that’s needed is patience, a willingness to listen, and careful selection of the people to be interviewed.

In our next post, we’ll look at ways to identify the best customers to include in an assessment.

Written by Michael Rosenbaum on January 28th, 2014. Posted in Performance Improvement, Strategic Insights

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