For several years McDonald’s customers asked for all-day breakfast menu items. Then the fast-food giant announced it would give customers what they wanted. McDonald’s isn’t alone in its positive response to customer requests. Pizza Hut is one of several chains that removed artificial flavors and colors from many of its foods.
Take a look at some of the most forward-thinking companies, and you’ll likely see businesses that make it a top priority to listen to what customers say and use that feedback to improve their services and offerings.
“Listening to customers is essential to any business,” says Tom Salonek, CEO and founder of Intertech, Inc. and author of Building a Winning Business and the upcoming 100: The Shortest Book of Everything You Need to Build A Winning Business That Delivers an Ideal Life. “Businesses that pay close attention to customer feedback perceive threats more quickly, ensure brand consistency and reduce customer attrition. They can also use customer feedback to validate marketing campaigns and protect and grow revenue.”
—Tom Salonek, CEO and founder of Intertech, Inc.
Of course, not all customer requests and suggestions are viable ones. How can you weed out the good ideas from the crowd? Salonek offers suggestions for tuning into what customers are thinking and feeling about your brand and making responsive changes that may ultimately increase business.
Call on Customers for Input
“When responding to customer requests and developing new offerings, we’ve had success getting key customers involved with product concept development and design,” says Salonek, whose intent is twofold. “By getting customers involved on the front end and getting their direction, they have a vested interest in the final product and will purchase and promote the new offering.”
If you do ask for customer feedback, make sure to always take the advice when feasible, and acknowledge all of it, Salonek advises. “Asking customers for feedback and direction is similar to asking for feedback from employees. If you continually ask questions and request feedback but there are no changes or communication on what’s being done with the feedback, eventually they'll have no interest in helping drive new products or offerings, because they think it’s falling on deaf ears.”
Draw Out Valid Customer Suggestions
Aside from checking social media and blog posts for comments from clients, there are other ways you might elicit suggestions from customers that could lead to innovative and productive changes. Whenever possible, survey customers about changes they’d like to see made. Rather than simply asking what new products or services they’d like to see, Salonek finds it more productive to get customers to share their core issues through other questions, such as:
- What’s one thing we should stop doing, start doing or continue doing?
- What’s a hassle (time wasted) when dealing with us?
- If you were CEO of our company for one day and could only make one decision, what would it be?
- If we could grow in one capability that would align us with where you think the world is headed, what would it be?
- What’s an important issue or opportunity when dealing with our company that’s being buried, ignored, not dealt with or is uncomfortable to talk about?
While viewing customer feedback from these questions, Salonek advises looking for patterns and trends, and he also suggests considering the more unusual suggestions. "Sometimes it’s the outliers that provide valuable suggestions on new product or service offerings," he says
It might not be in your budget to use data warehouses, sophisticated analytics or Business Intelligence (BI) software, but there are tools that allow analyzing customers and their behavior that are available to businesses of all sizes.
"Google Analytics and Google Webmaster tools are free and can be used with any website to complete tasks such as to analyze customer behavior and try A/B testing,” Salonek says. “Through analytics, companies can find the right balance between protecting profit margins while ensuring customer satisfaction.”
If you can set the right tone with your employees by convincing them that you care about what they think, they're much more likely to mirror that concern in their interactions with your customers, Salonek believes. “Your employees will also be more likely to share their ideas for new offerings and improvements to existing offerings. The employees of Nordstrom are a great example of this principle. The company fully and authentically engages employees and they reflect that passion for great service to their customers.”
Know When to Fold
Don’t be afraid to cut bait on a new product or service offering if it isn’t working out or early customer testing is showing the idea isn’t going to be successful, Salonek advises. “More than once, I let my ego get the better of me and my personal investment in a concept kept me pushing it forward even though customers were pushing back,” he says. “Talking with customers, using surveys and implementing tools like Google Analytics are all good approaches, but remember to continue to trust a key element that got you to where you are today…your gut.”
For more tips on finding new customers, download our exclusive guide from Guy Kawasaki, The Art of Getting Customers.
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A version of this article was originally published on September 4, 2015.