Are You Listening to Me?: Communicate With Customers

To learn what customers really want, ask them!

Communicate with customers. That includes your best customers, your squeaky wheels, and the great silent majority. In the wired world, word of mouth spreads faster and carries greater clout than any marketing. Over 20 percent of consumers will contribute over 1 billion unique pieces of content to discussion forum posts, online reviews, and blog entries in 2004, according to Intelliseek.

Consumer-generated media is projected to increase 30 percent annually, and blog content at an even higher rate. Intelliseek’s Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing and customer satisfaction officer, believes “feedback and customer service are the new marketing opportunity.”

“Consumers rule” isn’t just a mantra, it’s reality. Engage customers in a dialogue using on-site feedback and real-time conversations to determine what they want. Don’t assume you can guess what they want. Each customer contact is an opportunity to extend the relationship and increase lifetime customer value.

Responding to customer feedback within 24 hours is policy at WeatherBug,. The company is dedicated to listening to the “voice of the consumer.” According to Senior VP and General Manager Andy Jedynak, “The real value of our business is in pervasive customer relationships and making them last.”

When consumer desire for an ad-free environment surfaced in email correspondence as a reoccurring message, WeatherBug used customer input to develop and test a paid-subscription product. WeatherBug monitors key customer feedback indicators with a page-and-a-half report issued weekly to senior management. For hot, new areas of concern, WeatherBug’s CRM system quickly delivers raw feedback, categorized by topic.

A senior executive at an online travel startup with limited resources regularly spoke to a cross-section of his customers. Without significant costs, these conversations yielded valuable feedback. The firm adapted its Web site and offering in ways that would never have surfaced in focus groups or market research surveys.

For example, the firm originally assumed the flight schedule was business travelers’ primary driver. Customer interviews revealed frequent flier programs’ interaction with different travel options was a stronger, yet unknown, preference driver. By providing customers with the ability to search for travel services that maximized their frequent flier awards, its heaviest business travelers were converted to loyal customers.

Communicate with customers to:

  • Discover how they feel about your offering and brand. Know if your brand delivers on its promise in customers’ eyes.
  • Determine what they want from your company. This is one way to gather early input on where to direct new initiatives and how to modify marketing.
  • Extend your relationship with your best and most influential customers. Tied to your brand, these customers have strong feelings and insights into the strengths and weaknesses of your offering and want to help you.
  • Test ideas for quantitative research. Tap into your customer base to test planned market research. This can save you headaches down the road.

Ways to reach out to customers:

  • Ask users for input. Place a “feedback” text link in the footer on every Web site page or in the site’s navigation bar. Collect customer input at every touch point. Depending on your offering, you may want to solicit customers, visitors, or both.
  • Monitor and respond to non-customer service feedback. Responses should be timely and go beyond automated, preformatted answers when you’re confronted with non-routine requests.
  • Randomly select customers and request permission to talk with them. To get input from visitors who aren’t customers, use a pop-up window or a box on the home page. Consumer time is precious; send a personalized email or call to arrange a time to talk at the consumer’s convenience. Only a small percentage of customers contacted will talk to you. Consider using a special email address for these communications.
  • Talk to customers. Consider creating a list of questions to ask. The online travel executive found allowing customers to verbally direct the conversation where they wanted was most valuable. Ask customers for their stories about using your product.
  • Take good notes and record each conversation. You’ll want to verify what was said and, over time, detect consistent themes in the comments. Notes will help create a sense of the true importance of an issue after the conversation fades.
  • Leverage customer service. Gather additional information from and about your customers. Talk regularly with customer service reps about what they see as emerging issues.

Follow up customer contacts by:

  • Thanking customers for their time. This will build goodwill and extend your relationship. If you plan to use customer stories publicly, request permission.
  • Maintaining ongoing contact with these customers. Having initiated the connection, consider ways to enhance it.

Analyze consumer input:

  • Compile customer feedback, good and bad. Break out input by categories relevant to your business and brand. Cull direct quotes to illustrate points. Use this input as the basis for business changes or quantitative research.
  • Track and include feedback indicators. Track items such as the number of email messages received per day and average response time. The aim is to surface issues quickly. Even a lack of customer response may be an important sign.
  • Add a commentary section summarizing feedback themes. WeatherBug’s weekly report includes a “What the numbers don’t tell you” section.
  • Distribute to senior management, marketing, product, technology, PR, legal, and investor relations. Get management’s input as to what they need to help better steer the business.
  • Monitor cost and benefits of the ongoing, proactive customer communication program. Although this process generally leverages existing resources, so incremental costs are minimal, benefits can be difficult to directly quantify. To illustrate its value to management, maintain a list of notable improvements that result from collecting customer feedback. Where actual costs don’t exist, use a proxy, such as the cost of a focus group.

By communicating with customers directly, you open a channel that allows you to tap into customers’ feelings. If you know there’s an issue with your offering, technology, customer base, or competitors, you can deal with it. The sooner you identify a problem, the more quickly you can respond to it.

This isn’t the time for an ostrich approach to marketing. In addition to building old-fashioned relationships, listening to customers directly provides a mother lode of information to help improve your offering, Web site, and marketing.

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