By: Jon Picoult, Monster Contributing Writer
Think you know your customers? Think again…
The marketplace is littered with the corpses of businesses who thought they understood their customers' needs -- only to realize, when it was too late, that they were wrong. (Recent victims of this phenomenon include Kodak, Blockbuster and Blackberry.)
Understanding the needs, wants and overall mindset of your customers is critical for improving current business offerings, as well as developing entirely new ones.
But rare is the customer who will actually volunteer such insights. Rather, you’ve got to tease this information out of your clientele.
And this is where many business leaders stumble, because it requires an act of humility -- something that can be in short-supply with those who have enjoyed past success. It requires acknowledgement that you might not actually know your customers, and their motivations, as well as you think.
But the good news is, you can do something about that! Here are four ways to cultivate better customer insights, so you can craft a sound business strategy that drives today’s profits and tomorrow’s growth:
1. Ask your employees.
Of all the people in your organization, the ones who understand customers best are your front-line staff. These people interact daily with your customers, giving them a unique and credible perspective that can’t be found elsewhere.
Take the time to regularly huddle with your front-line. Ask them pointed questions about what pleases customers and what disappoints them. Which of your products and services do customers rave about? Which ones do they frequently browse, but rarely purchase? What do they often ask for, but the business is unable to provide? What are customers’ biggest frustrations?
Not only will this dialogue help you see your customer in a new light, but it can also drive stronger employee engagement, making the staff feel even more important and valued by the business.
2. Set up listening posts.
Tapping into the customer insights of your front-line staff is wise, but don’t stop there. Go right to the source, soliciting opinions from customers themselves.
Whether it be with a short e-mail survey, an interviewer positioned outside of your store, or a social media strategy that calls for comments -- however you do it, make it easy for customers to provide feedback. Doing so can unearth a treasure trove of insights, many of which customers would have never shared unless they were asked.
Of course, asking for customer feedback is just half the equation. When you involve customers in this type of exercise, it’s imperative that you acknowledge their feedback -- closing the loop so they know that they’ve been heard and their suggestions are being considered.
3. Go into the wild.
The most brilliant customer insights often come by observing customers in their natural habitat -- “in the wild” -- while they interact with your business or use your products. This technique (called “ethnographic research”) helps reveal insights that customers would never think to share with you.
When you employ this approach, you get an unfiltered look at the customer experience. You get to see how people make purchase decisions, how they use your products, how they use your website and how they satisfy needs that aren’t currently addressed by your offerings.
Observing customers in this manner, and having an in-depth conversation with them afterwards, inevitably yields a long list of ideas for improvements and business innovation.
4. Get a fresh perspective from an unlikely source.
While employees and customers can be good sources for market insight, both parties have their limitations.
Employees -- particularly the most experienced ones -- can be so steeped in current business practices that they may have difficulty thinking of creative, unconventional ways to address emerging customer needs.
Customers, in turn, are unfamiliar with the inner workings of your business and may not be able to help you connect the dots from insight to execution.
Imagine if you could somehow get the best of both worlds, finding someone who combines the external perspective of customers with the internal know-how of employees.
The answer is you can -- in the form of your new hires. This is especially true if one of your hiring practices is to bring aboard employees who mirror your customers (which, in and of itself, is a good hiring strategy, since consumers are often more comfortable interacting with people they view as peers).
Ask new hires for their perspective on your products, services and overall customer experience. Have them “play” customer for a day and give you candid feedback.
Once they’re assimilated into the business and have gained familiarity with your operation, loop back and continue the debrief. Use their fresh perspective to explore new ways of engineering products or delivering services so they better meet the identified needs of your customers.
An added bonus: the mere act of asking your new hires to participate in this strategic exercise will make them feel special, giving them confidence that they made the right decision in joining your team.
Cultivating customer insight is good for your company and your business strategy. But it doesn’t necessarily require an expensive engagement with a professional research firm.
Start by taking the time to consult with those around you -- employees, customers and new hires. Their perspectives will help bring your target market -- and your path to future growth -- into much sharper focus.
Jon Picoult is Founder of Watermark Consulting, a firm that helps businesses impress their customers, candidates and employees. Prior to establishing Watermark, Jon held senior executive roles in service, technology, sales and marketing at Fortune 100 companies. Learn more, or read Jon’s blog, at watermarkconsult.net.