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Listening to customers helps set vision and strategy for a business

By Alan Hall

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Oct. 24 2011 8:08 p.m. MDT

Companies tend to focus too much on their product or service, forgetting to listen to what their customers are telling them. The goal for any business is to make money, but that goal is more easily attained when you listen to your customers and know and understand what their needs are.

The best way to do that is by listening to what they tell you. More often than not, in the course of a conversation, a customer will divulge information that is vital to your overall success.

Listed below are some key items to listen for while talking to a client:

Needs: All customers have needs. Businesses are looking for solutions to problems regarding revenue growth, improved margins and lower expenses. Private individuals are looking to fulfill basic human needs with products and services that will improve their lives. Listen to what's on their minds.

Current Solutions: Customers buy from a competitor to satisfy their wants. Listen for opinions on their level of satisfaction. What you hear may provide you with information to deliver a better solution. If there is no current answer to a problem or need, it's your opportunity to develop and sell one.

Company/individual goals: Companies and people have visions of success and fulfillment; to be the best, most respected, most praised. Each has a goal and how they might achieve it. Learning what motivates an organization or a person is fundamental to delivering value. Listen carefully to the key elements that energize a company's or individual's desire for action. Therein lies an opportunity to engage in an emotional way with a customer.

Future Needs: An ability to know or predict what the customer needs but doesn't know they need yet is critical. The late Steve Jobs was not only incredibly effective at understanding what people needed, but also in innovating and providing a product that met the needs they didn't even know they had yet. That ability was a huge contributing factor to his success.

All great and successful company leaders have a clear understanding of who their customers are. It's the basis of why a company exists. It's the foundation of an organization's vision and strategy. Customers, if we listen to them, will tell us all we need to know to develop a plan to ensure a successful on-going business.

You will succeed as a business if you spend time visiting with potential and current customers. Learn what's on their minds and then make sure you deliver to them exactly what they want for a price they will pay. It's really that simple. Most great businesses today, large and small, follow this model. They talk to customers constantly, always taking note of any changes in thought or behavior.

On the contrary, I often find firms that don't start with the customer in mind. They develop a vision and strategy that focuses on a product or service with no thought of what customers might think or do. In short order, the business is bankrupt.

At MarketStar some years ago, a foreign manufacturer asked my firm to help them sell digital video cameras. I suggested to the president of the company that we would be wise to learn from the marketplace how well the camera would sell.

My research team spoke with potential customers and reported later that their camera was over-priced, did not have adequate features and benefits compared to multiple competitors and that no retailer would carry its brand. Sadly, the camera was a total flop and the president lost his job. If only he had thought about the customer first.

By listening to a customer you gain valuable insight into what they need and want. Listening to their needs and delivering a product or solution that meets these needs will help you build a relationship of trust which will solidify your standing with them and be a driving force for repeat business moving forward.

Alan Hall is a co-founding managing director of Mercato Partners, a regionally focused growth capital investment firm. He founded Grow Utah Ventures to help entrepreneurs and is the founder of MarketStar Corp.

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