Market research on the fly

By Stephen Rhodes

A customer is not always right, despite the popular saying. But beware the business that doesn’t listen to its customers.

Jeff Bowman, in Monday’s column, says the cost of selling additional products to an established client is far less than the cost of finding a new client and suggests that customer satisfaction surveys are important tools to take the pulse of customer needs.

Market research is not the exclusive domain of big companies with big budgets. Many small businesses can’t afford to hire an outside company to sample customer opinions, but there are other ways to gather intelligence.

It’s tempting to want to believe your own notices – all products are new and improved and you offer exceptional customer service. That’s what your literature says. Then again, that’s what everyone’s literature says.

Are your products and services really the best available? Are you really responding to the needs of customers? Do you even know what they are?

There is a simple answer. Ask your customers. It sounds too simple and that might explain why many businesses don’t do it.

This is face-to-face research, with someone you know. It’s better than some nameless, faceless demographic blob that a research company is going to call in the middle of the World Series. And it costs next to nothing.

Ask simple questions and listen carefully to the answers because sometimes the answers are not as direct as you might hope.

Ask your customers why they do business with you. Where did they hear about you? Was it advertising, a brochure, a website, a referral?  Aside from telling you where you should invest money to reach customers, the answer can also tell you why a client chose your business.

If it’s a regular client or customer, ask why they keep coming back. Maybe your customer service really is exceptional. Maybe you have the best price in town. You want to know.

Ask your customers how you can improve. A customer will likely give you a straight answer, particularly if they believe you want to make an already good service or product even better.

Ask where your customer used to shop and why that company lost their business.

Finally, ask what would it take to wow them? How can you exceed their expectations?

This is affordable research and it comes directly from the customer. It may change how you promote and advertise your business, where you place emphasis – like service over price – and change your perceptions about why people buy your products or services.

Or you might discover that you are doing everything right. Either way, it’s valuable information. And if you are perfect, it’s just another feather in your cap, because customers will know you care about what they think.

Customers may not always be right, but if ask them you may learn what’s right about your business. And that is worth the investment of time.

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