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What, Why, How – Learning about your customers to keep them customers

March 4, 2009

There’s no substitute for knowing your customer at the most basic levels in the best of times and even more so during these times when the issues caused by misdirected promotions, poorly designed advertising and unfixed customer recognized problems can have immediate and perhaps lasting negative effects.

I recently had a conversation with Madelyn Wolf of Premium Solutions, a leading Qualitative Research Consultant who has over 20 years experience performing research for F10 CPG companies, restaurant chains and some smaller companies. The topic on the table was how do companies know what’s actually important to their customers and how does this affect a customer’s purchasing your products/services.

Those of us who are not professional market researchers talk to our customers at least once a year, either directly (we say hello during the Holidays) or indirectly (our Sales groups give us feedback) or receive filtered feedback from the surveys taken after customer support sessions. You know the ‘on a scale of 1 to 10, were you satisfied with the resolution’ questions. There’s a huge difference in the usefulness between “Your online ordering website is OK”  vs.  “I look first at the upper left hand corner for my order status and the picture is distracting”.

First, who is the customer? You can say it’s the Purchasing Dept (partly true – all good Purchasing units perform Vendor Tracking on compliance to timeliness, price and quality contractual terms among others). Most of us say it’s the ‘buyer/recommender’, that is the person who evaluated your offer and decided to buy it. They need to feel good about their decision and be respected for it inside their organization. Then again, it can be the ‘end user’, i.e. the person who actually touches and uses your product or service. Most likely, it’s a combination of the three. The time honored adage in the retail industry is that the customer’s purchase isn’t complete until someone else tells them they did well. B2B is the same, people being people. My rule: the customer you need to worry about is the lowest person who can have their company stop using you at all. I once had a situation where a company was willing and waiting to buy but a fairly low level production supervisor did an “over my dead body” move and killed the sale.

Professional market research moderators use discussion guides to provide a consistent and logical flow of probing but not uncomfortable questions. The can range from 10 questions to several pages and 30 minutes on a One on One customer interview is not uncommon. We all tell our Executives and Sales reps to provide us feedback on their accounts, but it can easily become filtered and not to your benefit. In an extreme case, a sales rep was the toast of his office because he had this killer account who was buying millions of dollars per year. All we heard was how well liked he was by the ultimate buyer. One day, the Regional Manager received a communication to the effect of “we’ll keep buying from Jim but please ask him not to come onsite any more”.

Given the hard times, I asked this marketing research professional to develop a general discussion guide suitable for you and your executives to customize and use during a 30 minute conversation with your customers. Too long to include here, drop me an email at and I’ll send over a free copy, but here’s a sample of the questions to give you some insight into the interviewing process:

What is our company doing best to meet your needs?

Why is this important to you?

What value added do we provide?

What would you change about the ways in which we work with you?

For each proposed ‘change’ ask “

o Why is it important to you?

o What brought you to want us to change it?

What makes us unique or different from other companies/competitors with whom you work?

How much does that uniqueness matter to you as you are making the decision to purchase/use our products or services?

How much does that uniqueness matter to you as you are working with us on an on-going basis?

When and how to have this discussion? My recommendation is to pick a customer from each of the large/medium/small sales revenues categories (and a similar group from each Region if that’s how your operate). Assign one customer (or Region) to a senior executive, who after notifying the appropriate Sales Reps/Manager(s), calls and uses the guide. The local sales team can listen but not participate on the calls, and preferably are not in the same room as the senior executive interviewer. The information gleaned is then presented by the executive who did the calling to the Senior Management Team whose job it is to pick out the common themes as well as specific feelings/perceptions. The gathered information will be immensely valuable and the associated costs minimal – how many other activities these days have a similarly high ROI?

Rich Eichen is a senior turnaround leader/CRO, Program and Interim Manager with over 25 years experience reshaping companies and key initiatives as well as operating units of Global organizations. He’s the founding Principal of Return on Efficiency, LLC, who’s website is

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