Two-way communication is essential in any business. How do you know what your customers want if you do not ask them? You cannot afford to assume you know people’s requirements - you are unlikely to think of everything.
Think about what it is you need to know - if you are unclear about what you are asking, the answers will be similarly unclear. The following questions should act as a guideline:
- What do I need to know? Am I seeking their opinion, information about their last purchase or information about their next one?
- Whom should I ask? All customers, all potential customers, only those whose requests have been easy to fulfil or only those from whom I made a substantial profit?
- How should I ask? What method of communication suits us best: face to face, postal questionnaire or telephone survey?
- What should I ask? How should I phrase the questions in order to get the information I need, and what questions should I pose?
The last point is probably the most difficult, but following a few basic guidelines should help. It is important that, whatever method of communicating with your customers you choose, you tell them that you are asking for their help in order that you may improve the product or service you offer.
You could of course be more rigorous and undertake a more formal survey. Doing this can be expensive in terms of both time and money, however, so it is important to be certain if this is necessary and to get it right first time.
At this stage your objective is to find out what makes people buy from you and to pinpoint what would make them buy more. Of course, they may not want to answer, but if you are genuinely trying to find ways of improving what you do, then they are missing out on an opportunity to help themselves if they do not respond.
Analysing the information
By analysing the responses to your survey you should be able to rate your product or service against your customers’ requirements. Some points will be obvious and may be addressed straight away. Others might be less so, and may require detailed analysis to identify.
Check your responses for the following indicators:
- What was the most frequently mentioned issue?
- What are your customers’ needs in priority order?
- How is your firm received?
If you are in an environment where prompt delivery is the most critical issue to your customers, rate your own delivery service against their requirements. Do they want fast delivery or reliable delivery? There is a difference. Never promise what you cannot deliver, even if the promise would win you orders from the competition. You will end up letting your customers down - dressing it up by calling the day before the delivery is due and saying there is a problem, in order to move the delivery date back to one you can meet, is not acceptable.
Profiling against requirements
With every issue your customers have identified, rate yourself against it. Assess your strengths - do you need to be more positive about communicating them to your customers? Build on your weaknesses - ignoring them won’t make them go away, so acknowledge them and concentrate on areas where you can improve.
Customer care policy
One way to keep track of customers’ feedback and complaints and ahead of their needs is to introduce a customer care policy. Start with a statement of principle about how you think your customers should be treated: for example, 'we aim to treat our customers in the way in which we would expect to be treated ourselves'.
Set specific standards of care backed up by suitable procedures. Involve staff in designing the customer care policy; this means you benefit from both their ideas and commitment. Use simple, direct language, and circulate the policy to everyone once it has been formulated. Review it regularly and be sure new staff are introduced to it so they are aware of the standard from the start.
Monitor the quality of service regularly and use incentives to help motivate staff - a reward could be anything from a simple 'thank-you' to a bonus scheme.
Make sure that your complaints procedure is first class - chances are something will go wrong at some point, and how you handle the matter is crucial - you could lose the customer completely or turn him or her into a raving fan, depending on your attitude and actions. Learn from your complaints - they are arguably the best business information you will ever receive.
Keep an eye on the competition
Knowing who the competition are, what they are doing and how well, helps you to stay one step ahead. If they are cutting costs, using new materials, offering special discounts or extras, you need to know. Information is power in this instance, and you should take steps to contain potential damage.
In addition, make a list of the businesses or individuals with whom you deal and who are good at supplying you. Write against each one what it is that keeps you going back. Consider each point; can any of them be adapted to your business? This process keeps you thinking about some of the best organisations you know and identifying whether some of their methods could be useful to you.