Alan Hall: Listening to customers yields success

Published: Tuesday, May 28 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

This article originally appeared in Alan’s weekly Forbes column.

Mr. Garff, I’m impressed. As I drive Utah’s freeways I see scores of billboards featuring employees with large ears, exclaiming that they listen to customers. Good for you and good for us as customers and potential buyers of cars. Your message is spot on and should be noticed by all business leaders as fundamental to a successful enterprise. With this theme in mind, I am pleased to share with you today my view on the importance of reaching out to customers for advice and counsel.

In my 40+ years as an entrepreneur, and heavily involved in the entrepreneurial community, I have observed the wild success of many businesses, and the fast failure of others. All had a superior product or service, so why did some fail? Most unsuccessful companies focused too much on their product and forgot to listen to what customers might have told them. This inevitably resulted in declining revenue and profit.

The goal of any business is to make money, but that objective is easier to reach when we listen to customers and understand their needs. The best way to do this is by asking what’s on their minds — then carefully listen to what they tell us.

In short, business leaders should be actively seeking a consumer’s point of view on everything that has to do with their business. What do customers think of your advertising, your products, service, warranties, pricing, and the buying experience itself? How do they feel about your people and the attention they receive not just at the moment of sale but afterwards as well?

The key is to ask questions and conduct surveys. More often than not, in the course of a conversation, a customer will divulge information that is vital to your overall success. Consider three areas related to customers:

Individuals have needs

Individuals and families are looking to fulfill basic human needs with products and services that will improve their lives. Wise businessmen and women know what these are. Smart executives understand exactly what people want, when they want it and what they will pay for it. They spend a significant part of the week visiting with customers so they can respond with superior solutions.

I suggest that business owners also invite all employees to regularly visit with customers, regardless of their assignments. With this collective knowledge, the entire company will be informed and united in what it takes to attract, engage and retain loyal customers.

What do customers think of the competition?

Customers have choices when buying a product. They seek options from trusted friends and family. Experienced shoppers explore what others are saying on social media and online customer reviews. Your company’s product may be just one of many options. We can benefit from listening to our customers’ opinions about their level of satisfaction with competing products. Take the time to thoroughly explore what others are saying about your competition. What we hear might provide us with information critical to helping us deliver better solutions today and tomorrow.

Future customer needs

An ability to know or predict what the customer will need in the future is critical to ongoing success. The late Steve Jobs was not only incredibly effective at understanding what people want, but also at innovating and providing a product to meet the needs customers didn’t even know they had. This unique ability was a huge contributing factor to his success.

Consider our appetites for Apple devices, from the Nano to the iPhone to the iPad to the anticipated iTV. Jobs not only knew the current needs and wants of people, but he also possessed the uncanny ability to foresee future wishes. What can we learn from Jobs? We should not be comfortable with current solutions. We should look to the future and do our best to anticipate where we might take our customers with innovative solutions.

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