I’ve learned a lot as a marketing consultant; I’ve been at this a loooooong time.  One of the most important things I’ve learned: ask your customers and virtually any decision you make will be a better one.

Let the people who will or won’t ultimately buy what you want to sell inform what you say (your marketing message) and how you say it (your marketing methods).

“Ask your customers” can mean different things coming from different people.  Here’s what I mean:

Ask a few people, not a lot.  This isn’t a statistical exercise.  Have five in-depth conversations with customers (not your favorites) who have become customers recently.  The goal is to have three really good conversations out of the five.  That’s all you need.

Ask open-ended questions.  What was going on inside your company when you decided to look for a company like ours?  What criteria did you use when you evaluated vendors — what were you looking for?  Describe the process you went through to find us.  If that process hadn’t worked, what else would you have tried?  What was your initial perception of us?  How do companies like mine promote themselves to you?  Why did you ultimately select us?  If you were director of marketing for a firm like mine, how would you promote the company to people like you?  If you were director of marketing for a firm like mine, what would you say, what message would you use, to get the attention of people like you?

Ask for clarification.  Don’t accept general answers.  “We selected you because you offer good service,” or “better quality.”  Okay, great, thanks, now, what do you mean by good service?  Can you give me an example of bad service?  How do you measure quality?  What does better quality mean?  Getting down to the specifics of what they mean will sharpen your message.

Shut up and listen.  There are a couple things here.  First, shut up and listen.  Let.  Them.  Talk.  Don’t interrupt, don’t fill in the pauses.  Second, owners have a force of personality that tends to get in the way of objective feedback.  Don’t ask “What do you think about our service?”  That’s like asking “Do you think my daughter’s pretty?”

Listen for clues.  Audio record the interviews if you can.  Listen to them again.  Customers may not tell you literally how to change your marketing (although they sometimes do), but they always give clues.

Phone calls are fine.  You don’t have to be face-to-face to get good information.

Excuses for not doing this:

We know our customers.  Unless you’ve asked them the questions I suggest, no you don’t.

Our business is simple — there are only a few reasons why people buy.  You aren’t them.  Your perception isn’t theirs.  How to understand THEIR perceptions? (hint: the answer is in the title of this post)

We get customer feedback forms all the time.  Unless you’re  asking the questions I suggest, and you aren’t, you aren’t getting the information you need.  And boxes checked on paper aren’t the same as a conversation.

Don’t be fooled by how simple this sounds, or by how closely you feel you know your customers.  Try it, you’ll be amazed at what you learn!