The Simple Question You Should Always Ask Customers

There’s no such thing as a “traveler.”

I happen to be writing this on an airplane and surrounded by other people. All of them are, like me, going from one place to another (in this case, it is from Florida to Los Angeles). The guy next to me just finished a business trip and I happen to be in the middle of one. Two rows up is a family of four with two little ones (the younger one just fell asleep), and directly in front is a retired couple who I’ll guess are going to visit some grandkids.

We all have precisely one thing in common, which is that we needed to leave Florida at 8:50 in the morning to get to LA by 11:20. Some of us booked our tickets through the airline’s main site (a minority of us, if industry trends are to be believed), many more through a site like Travelocity or Expedia. Some may have even bought their tickets over the phone or in person at the few retail locations or travel agents that still exist in malls across the U.S.

In the past, the airline would have advertised to us all in the same way. They would talk about the basic elements of the carrier, noting the convenience of schedules or the comfort of the planes. Gone are the days of ads touting the attractiveness of the in-flight staff. Some more progressive airlines would talk about the benefits of the features they offer and some very good marketers out there would make an emotional connection about the feelings associated with travel.

But we would, by and large, talk in broad terms to “travelers.” All of us on this plane with that one thing in common: the need (or desire) to get from A to B at time C. And while we should never expect or desire that kind of broad advertising to ever stop, we can expect it to evolve and the path forward to become absolutely obsessed with pushing through demographic segments that refuse to provide the whole story.

Because we aren’t travelers. I’m a guy who has to get to a meeting. The guy next to me wants to get home to his family. The people in front shouldn’t be called travelers. They should be called “people who want to see their new grandkids.” And the family up there should be thought of as “parents who want to make sure their kids are comfortable, safe, and entertained for the next four-plus hours.”

No one is a traveler. No one is a “mom” or a “professional” or even an “action movie buff.” We have gotten extremely good at figuring out our own brand stories. Now it is time to take that same discipline and apply it outward. We need to get consumers to tell us their stories. And we have to do something interesting with it.

It’s Not (Just) About Data

We live in a world awash with data. We can now combine – or rather, have combined for us – real-world shopping data with Facebook profiles with our own consumer databases. That is remarkable (and what I believe to be the big, exciting, and still under-regarded story of 2013) and it can give us an extremely accurate picture of who a person is and maybe why she made a decision. Imagine if we could link the husband of the retired couple’s purchase of this airline ticket to his Facebook profile. We would know that his son lives (I’m making this up) and that he recently sent a “Congratulations on your new baby” post to his wall. Those two pieces of information would immediately flesh out his story and create a host of new marketing opportunities, not only for the airline, but for several other providers along the way. The rental company could offer a discount on a baby seat if they rent through them, for example.

When we do that, however, we start to get into that murky territory. We can get the information, but will using it turn off the consumer? While he may appreciate the offer, the fact that we know so much may make him uncomfortable and give him a moment of pause and a bad brand moment.

The answer? Talk to people. Everyone’s favorite topic is always themselves (we poor humans are a bit too predictable sometimes) and they tend to appreciate having questions asked, as long as the questions are not too intrusive. One of my favorite marketing tactics is from Fandango, the movie ticket site. The morning after you see a movie, the site sends you an email simply asking if you liked “Pain & Gain” (I did). I don’t know if Fandango started this, but I am increasingly seeing it through other sites as well, such as Clearly these ratings help its site by creating content, but that’s OK. It’s a nice and non-intrusive way to engage in a conversation.

This simple question, “How was [thing you bought from us]?” is so powerful that I imagine everyone is going to start asking it soon. I anticipate being asked how flights were and how pants fit. Brands will want to know if my bunny Larry liked his new food and if the repairs on my minivan went well.

Asking this simple question provides so many benefits. First, it initiates a conversation after conversion. That is, you already have the customer’s money in the bank. The customer may assume that you no longer care. Showing her you do is a powerful moment. Second, it may head off a potential flame-up in social media. Dissatisfied customers are increasingly heading to their computers to handle problems. Often this happens on Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and other public spaces. By asking the consumer, right away, how something was, you may get a chance to solve the problem before it goes public. And maybe the story that gets posted is how you handled the problem, and not that you screwed up.

Lastly, this question can serve as the simple icebreaker that leads to more engaging questions and deeper consumer knowledge, which she has offered up. If the airline asks the couple, “How was your flight?” and the couple replies, “Great – we were so happy to land on time to see our new grandkids,” we go from a conversion to a conversation. We go from a customer to a person with a story.

We go from single transactions to long-term relationships. And that is absurdly valuable.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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