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Why it is important to ask the difficult questions

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Have you ever asked your customers any of the following questions:

  • What is your biggest business challenge?
  • Why is that a particular problem for you?
  • Would you pay for that problem to go away?
  • How much would you pay?

They don’t look like complex questions, but for some businesses these are the most difficult questions to proactively ask their customers. In truth these are just market research questions. The kind of questions entrepreneurs ask all the time as they research the market appetite for new products and services. However, it’s also essential that organisations should also ask these questions to their existing customers.

In business I’ve always heard that “the customer is always right”. In fact, that maxim has not always turned out to be true. Instead I think a better maxim for business owners would be “never stop talking to your customers”.

But it’s not as easy as it looks, for either entrepreneurs or established businesses, to find, approach and then ask questions to customers. In fact it’s difficult. So difficult that I believe some businesses choose not to act at all. Or act, but not thoroughly enough. Either way, it’s dangerous for a senior manager in any business to not perpetually hold a clear understanding of their customers current needs and desires.

So why is it so difficult to answer these questions?

  • Firstly, it’s difficult finding the right people to ask and making time to find enough of the right people to provide insightful results
  • Secondly, it takes a certain skill set to hold dialogue with customers and extract from them the information you’re really interested in
  • Thirdly, it may not be a enjoyable experience if you believe your customers are unhappy with your service, or you. But in fact in this situation it’s more vital than ever to listen to what they have to say. Otherwise they may leave you
  • Finally, it’s time-consuming and difficult to process a wide variety of answers into a common set of themes, needs and requirements

These four points mean that the job of extracting information from a customer base requires special skills to do well; it is time-consuming; can be frustrating; can result in messages you don’t want to hear and so is something that is easily put off. After all, if it’s not broken then why fix it? If a business is trading well why ask your customers what they are unhappy about & give them the opportunity to provide negative feedback?

Read more about engaging with your customers:

Payroll and pensions: a case study

Different businesses, of different sizes, with different resources are going to have different views on how to service their customers. “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers”, by Geoffrey A. Moore, provides a simple but effective set of guidelines and rules for segmenting a market based on its characteristics/motivations for purchasing new technology. 

Those segments include: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. The factors that place a business into one of these sectors are complex, but one of the elements is the ability to spot new threats and opportunities that (in this case) new technology can provide.  

An interesting observation that I have taken away from my experiences of selling technology to a mainstream payroll/accounting software market is that two companies, of similar size, operating in the same market segment have quoted contradictory statements about what their customers have told them. Company A owner told us “our customers tell us that the problem you are solving is their number one problem – that’s why we’re going to partner with you: to solve that problem”.

Company B owner told us “our customers are not telling us that this is a problem. We don’t think there’s a demand for your solution”.

Both Company A and Company B are well established, with large national customer bases and are commercially successful. But each are radically different in terms of size, ambition, resources and initiative. Company A is a global “challenger” looking to grow its presence in the UK. Company B is one of the old-school incumbents which has been operating in the market for over 15 years. Based on Geoffrey A. Moore’s “crossing the chasm” model Company A is an “early adopter” and Company B is a “late majority” or even a “laggard”.

But despite the organisational differences, what also appears to separate these two companies is the contradictory feedback that each company has obtained from its customers. This difference has resulted in dramatically different views on the market and its needs. Could both be correct? Possibly. But I doubt it. I’m left feeling that Company B has probably not gone about asking “the difficult questions” in a methodical, professional and comprehensive way. If it had then its management may have come to an entirely different conclusion.

Passion and ambition are the key ingredients Virgin Wines CEO Jay Wright believes are key to being a customer-led firm, as he told Real Business through an in-depth interview.

Will Lovegrove is CEO at auto-enrolment data integration platform pensionsync.

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