It’s easy to adopt a one-track mind. In your personal life, this isn’t a big deal. (Who cares if you’re a firm believer in a pineapple on pizza, despite the fact that the majority of people disagree? Or does it really matter that you prefer living in an apartment in the city versus a house in the suburbs?) As a business owner, getting stuck inside your own head is a recipe for disaster.

You’re only one person. No matter how much you might think your thoughts and ideas are indicative of the majority, it’s entirely possible that your ideas are off base. And if they’re too far off the mark, they could cost you customers, revenue, and market share.

Your ideas and opinions are integral to your company’s strategy, but they aren’t the only ones that matter. You can learn much by listening to your customers and gleaning insights from their own opinions, preferences, and ideas.

Why You Should Listen to Your Customers?

Listening is often viewed as a passive and submissive process, but for entrepreneurs and business owners, it’s actually a proactive investment in future growth and development. Here are some concrete reasons why you should spend more time listening to your customers:

  • Customers tell you what they want – Think about what would happen if your favorite clothing brand reached out and asked you for some suggestions on their next line of t-shirts. You’d have ideas on materials, cuts, colors, and styles. And chances are, your ideas would be very similar to other fellow customers. The same is true for your customers. They know what they want and should be able to communicate these desires to you.
  • Customers have ideas for improvement – Your customers use your products more than you. This means they constantly have ideas for improvements. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t going to pick up the phone or draft an email just to let you know. You have to listen and/or proactively chase down these insights.
  • Customers are better testers – You’re used to test your company’s products in a sterile environment. Your customers are using your products in the real world. They’re exposing them to dynamic environments and applications that you could never dream of. This makes them far superior testers (and invaluable sources of feedback).
  • Customers identify upsell and cross-sell opportunities – Your customers are more innovative than you realize. They’ll be happy to identify other complementary products and services to you. Some of them will be worthless or impractical, but others will lead to opportunities for upselling or cross-selling.
  • Customers provide storytelling fodder – Are you looking to humanize your brand or collect social proof? The more you listen, the more stories you’ll gather from your customers. Assuming you get their permission, you can transform these stories into valuable anecdotes for your marketing and promotional efforts.
  • Customers appreciate being heard – Sometimes the simple act of reaching out and asking customers for their opinions makes them feel special. This might not be a concrete benefit, but it’s easy to see how feelings of appreciation can lead to increased customer loyalty over the long haul.

The more you know about your customers, the greater your chances are of delivering high value and cultivating loyalty among members of your target audience. It’s a no-brainer investment.

The Shadow Side of Listening to Customers

We’ve provided a long laundry list of benefits you gain when you listen to customers, but it’s not all great. When listening, you have to be cautious of some of the challenges. In particular, know that:

  • Customers aren’t always right – While the old customer service adage may say otherwise, your customers often have terrible ideas and insights. If you take everything at face value, it could lead your business down the wrong path. Eventually, this may undermine your operations and prevent you from pursuing valuable opportunities.
  • Customers rarely know what they want – As Steve Jobs famously said, “Customers don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” While there are exceptions to this idea, it holds water in most cases. You’re the innovator – not the customer. They’ll simply tell you what they already know to be true. If you listen to them, you’ll never create anything fresh or revolutionary.
  • Customers don’t always speak up – One of the major risks of listening to customers is that the minority often screams, while the majority remains silent. If you aren’t careful, you’ll only tap into the insights of emotional customers, while ignoring the thoughts and opinions of the people who are satisfied.
  • Customers can lie and mislead – The problem with quick forms of feedback that are backed by incentives is that customers rush through the process in order to get the bonus. Completing a survey for a discount code is a great example. Most customers only care about the code, so they’ll quickly select responses without much consideration for the questions. Unbeknownst to you, this produces inaccurate data and misleading insights.

Don’t let this shadow side of listening dissuade you from gathering insights from your customers. The good still outweighs the bad. Just make sure you’re aware of these issues, in order that you stay grounded.

Practical Ways to Listen and Gather Meaningful Insights

Customer listening strategies and best practices come and go; however, certain principles remain steady over the years. Whether you run a small startup or major corporation, you’ll find the following tips and techniques helpful in gathering and interpreting customer insights.

1. Be Reachable

The first step is to make your business reachable. In other words, customers should be capable of contacting you when they have questions, feedback, or concerns. Otherwise, the onus is always on you to go out and glean information. (Which is a good way to deplete your resources and exhaust your team.)

In today’s world, being reachable means offering as many modes of communication as possible. At a bare minimum, you need phone and email. More than likely, you should add social media to the mix. A live chat feature on your website isn’t a bad idea, either.

Availability and responsiveness are both key elements in this equation, however. Never offer a mode of contact if you can’t respond in an efficient and reasonable manner. For example, if you only check your Facebook inbox every two weeks, this probably isn’t the best place to engage with your audience.

3. Ask for Feedback

Only a small fraction of customers are going to provide unsolicited feedback. As mentioned, these will typically be the people on the extremes (either really happy or extremely frustrated). If you’re trying to get balanced feedback that’s indicative of the majority, you need to go out and ask.

There are a variety of ways to ask for feedback. There are generic asks, which include sending out surveys to your email list or running a poll on social media. Then there are specific tasks, which include direct solicitation from specific customers. If you’re in B2C business with physical products, you’ll probably be doing more generic asks. If you’re in a B2B or service industry, specific outreach to individual clients is a practical option, too.

3. Use Social Listening Tools

Your customers are already talking about you and/or voicing their opinions about what they want and need – you just don’t know it. All you have to do is discover these insights so that you can tap into them.

One of the best ways to gather insights without directly soliciting feedback is to leverage social listening tools. Platforms like Hootsuite, HubSpot, Buffer, TweetReach, BuzzSumo, Sprout Social, Keyhole, SumAll, Mention, and Awario offer an array of features designed to help brands see what social media users are saying about them.

In addition to helping businesses discover insights, many of the aforementioned platforms also have built-in analysis tools so that businesses can implement positive social media strategies that address concerns and emphasize the positives.

4. Study the Data

People lie and mislead. Data is typically much more reliable. Thankfully, most businesses are drowning in data. The key is to zero in on which data points matter and then determine how they can best be used to pull out meaningful insights.

Your website analytics will tell you a lot about what your customers are thinking. For example, let’s say there’s a specific landing page on your website that’s averaging 1,000 visitors/unique page views every single day. On the surface, that sounds good. But what if you discover that the average time spent on this page is just six seconds, or that you’re only averaging two conversions per 1,000 visitors? Both of these numbers tell you something. Your customers are speaking and you need to listen.

5. Listen to Your Employees

As a business owner or CEO, you’re often too far removed from the actual customer to know what they think and feel. Sometimes the best way to listen to your customers is to pay attention to what your employees have to say.

Your customer-facing employees are full of rich insights. Customer service agents, social media managers, and salespeople should be your go-to resources. They’re able to provide tangible feedback and specific stories of individual customers.

While you should be wary of any single interaction, you can generally get a pretty strong pulse on how your customers feel by finding the common threads across dozens of stories. Ignore the outliers and home in on the consistent outcomes.

6. Read Reviews

Online review sites are intended to serve consumers. They provide a place for customers to post feedback – positive or negative – about different businesses and their products. But as a business owner, you should spend time reading these reviews as well.

Reading reviews can be tough, but the feedback is invaluable. Much like listening to your employees’ relay stories of interactions with customers, online reviews provide a documented history of how people feel about your brand. Some will be extremely negative and inaccurate. Others won’t make much sense. But somewhere in the middle, you’ll find a few reviews that provide helpful insights into how customers feel. Just remember to take everything with a grain of salt. Resist the temptation to send back a sharp retort to a stinging review. If you do reply, it needs to be unemotional, apologetic, and helpful.

7. Engage in Comment Sections

If your business has an online blog attached to its website, you have the option of enabling or disabling comments on individual posts. Most businesses choose to disable, simply because it prevents spammers and trolls from bringing the page down. However, there’s something to be said for allowing comments and actually engaging with your readers/customers.

When you respond to comments, a few things happen. First off, it forces you to actually listen to what people are saying. Secondly, it shows customers that you care enough to interact with them. Thirdly, it provides a two-way conversation where you can gain feedback and offer solutions.

8. Create (and Observe) Communities

One of the top ways to gather unbiased feedback is to create online communities where your customers can gather together and share insights, ideas, experiences, wants, or desires.

An online community can either be a branch of your business, or it could be totally unaffiliated. The latter typically provides more insightful feedback. An example would be a website forum or message board that’s focused on the industry you’re in. If you sell accounting services, for example, you could launch an accounting blog for small business owners. Technically it doesn’t have much direct relation to your company, but it gives you a digital asset that you can use to observe your target audience and gather data.

Stop Making Assumptions!

Making assumptions in your personal life isn’t always a big deal. They might put you in some embarrassing situations from time to time, but rarely will the consequences be severe. In business, however, assumptions are dangerous. Make too many of the wrong ones and you could compromise the very fabric of your company.

It’s time to stop making costly assumptions and start gathering meaningful insights through proactive customer listening. This article has given you some simple ways to start. Now it’s time to tailor them to your company’s specific needs.

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