This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the issues we shy away from in our businesses (and in our personal lives too). On so many issues we fear to ask details because we may not be comfortable asking or we may not be prepared to hear the answer. Don’t be that way. Let’s develop a culture that embraces and acts on feedback to improve customer experiences and thereby also improve our bottom lines.
I’ve done a lot of market research over the years. Part of the process involves working with a client to brainstorm the key issues to be researched. One thing that always raises a red flag for me is when a client says “No, we don’t want to ask our customers about that.” My ears perk up. I always push back: “Why don’t you want to ask that? It seems pretty important.” What I find is that when you dig deeper there is usually one of several possible reasons they don’t want to inquire about something that seems important: (1) it may not actually be that important (2) they already know the answer (and can prove it), or (3) they are afraid of the response. Number 3 pops up all the time. A lot of times it’s actually one of the reasons they began the research in the first place; but they are afraid of the answer. After all, thinking you know the response is still just conjecture. Once you ask it, you have to be okay hearing a real open and honest answer. It may be uncomfortable but those answers are often the most informative, most impactful.
As a business leader there are so many facets of your business which asking questions can be enlightening. Here I pulled out just a few areas in which forcing yourself to inquire in depth can be helpful.
- Customers. Discover which parts of your customer relationships have the most impact on their satisfaction and loyalty. Focus on those issues. Make sure you understand the impact of those issues – and how you are performing. Don’t be afraid of the answers. Ask how you can better serve them. Ask what you can do to work together to develop products or services that serve them better. Ask what pain they are having in their businesses. Ask what makes them competitive. (I bet no one’s ever asked them that one before!) Think about what an impact having an open dialogue with your customers will have on your relationship.
- Prospects. When meeting with prospective customers we often leave so much unexplored. Ask about their budget (or at least their pricing expectations) for a project or a product. Ask how they will make their purchasing decision. Ask where they are experiencing pain their business. Think how different things could be if we actually asked prospects these questions up front? Typically the worst that could happen is that they decline to answer. You may also find that you are not a good match. But isn’t it better to know that earlier rather than later?
- Employees. Sometimes we suspect there are challenges inside our businesses that we want to understand. A project that is not going well. An order that is in danger of missing its delivery date. Employee dissatisfaction. Financial numbers that don’t seem to add up – or match our expectations. Customer relationships that seem to be less than positive. As experienced leaders we can sometimes smell that something’s not quite right in our companies. But often it’s easier not to ask. Again, we are usually just afraid of the answer. So often we either try to tell ourselves that the problem doesn’t exist or we only ask superficial questions. At these times it’s important to step up and be a leader. Challenge their answers. Ask deep questions. Ask follow-up questions. Uncover the truth. You have to know what’s going on inside your business.
- Business Partners. Most businesses (large or small) have some sort of a relationship with outside parties – banks, investors, joint venture partners, vendors, etc. We allow so many questions to go unanswered. We should ask about their financial health (before its too late). We should ask for (and check) references. We should ask what their goals are for the partnership. Trust me. NOT asking these questions will usually come back to bite you.
I would encourage you to develop a set of questions to use before you have these conversations (when possible). For instance, have a set of questions through which you can walk prospective customers. Have a base set of questions you ask customers after a transaction or on a regular, scheduled basis. Have these question sets handy could give you more confidence in your questioning. But a warning: don’t just rely on that list. Let your questions take you wherever they may. Don’t be married to the list.
A final word of caution. While you are asking deeper, more penetrating questions always keep it conversational, positive, and productive. These conversations are usually fact-finding missions, not Law & Order investigations. Remember, your purpose is to collect information that will be helpful to all parties involved.
Part of your responsibility as a leader is to be informed – and that means being inquisitive. I know for a lot of us (me included) it’s against our nature. It feels pushy or challenging. Well, not if it’s done right. Not if it’s done with the right attitude. Not if it’s done with positive intentions. Go ahead, challenge yourself to ask the difficult questions.
Please feel free to reach out and get in touch and let’s explore how I can help you and your business succeed. No pressure. Just an informal discussion to explore some ideas. You can reach me at (713) 907-8429 or BCohen@IDiscoverConsulting.comI hope you are enjoying these blog posts. If so, please help spread the word. Tell others about IDiscover Consulting Group and my blog. Share these posts. Comment on them. I’d really love to hear your ideas!