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Allow Your Customers to be Part of the Solution

I’ve watched business owners sweat out a new product line, price change, store configuration, and other alterations with the anxious mien of someone about to be hanged in the morning. They are usually worried about what the reaction of the customer will be, and whether their “big gamble” has paid off or not.

And make no mistake about it, customers are a fickle bunch. When a new restaurant opened recently in my town, the waiting lines for breakfast that characterized other establishments on weekend mornings quickly disappeared, as erstwhile loyal customers tried out the newcomer. What can you do to retain loyalty and habit when you’re forced to make change or, as happens with more than restaurants, change drops in like an unwelcome guest in the form of a competitor opening just down the block?

The driving principle here is not to try to be a hero, prognosticator, or gambler. Ask the customers what they want. They may not always know, and you may choose not to cater to all demands. But you’ll be better off for having asked.

I was in the local outlet of a drug store chain the other day when I heard a customer in the next aisle say to no one in particular, “Why did they move everything? Where is the toothpaste?” (I could have told her that the toothpaste was in my aisle, since I was lost trying to find the razor blades and had blundered into the toothpaste. However, she was talking to herself, and there was no sense taking chances…) The drug store moved things around for better inventory, or traffic flow, or who knows what reason, but certainly not because the customers asked for it or were better served by it.

There are several good reasons for asking customers for their reaction before you make major changes:

  1. They usually have some excellent ideas, which are available to you for free.
  2. They will often point out risks or downsides which can thwart even the best plans.
  3. There will be no surprises among your best customers when changes are made.
  4. Even if you haven’t followed their advice, customers will feel better for having been asked.
  5. You’ve provided another opportunity to talk to your customers and generate loyalty.

The smarter newspaper management has been pretty good at asking readers and advertisers what they need. They can’t always comply, but they find, for example, that if stories are continued, they ought to be on the very next page, not jumped all over the place, and inserts and half-pages are annoying. “Zoning” was created-which is the insertion of neighborhood and local news unique to various areas-when readers asked for more news focused on their locales.

Any business can learn rapidly and accurately from asking the customer. While you can hire consultants to run focus groups and surveys-and I’ve done hundreds of them-I think it’s preferable for a business simply to ask directly and openly. Some techniques:

  • Assign key people-including yourself-to take turns greeting people who enter and ask them to react to your potential changes.
  • Ask sales clerks and cashiers to mention changes informally and gauge customer reaction.
  • Use a brief survey form at checkout or buying points, but make it very brief and have it completed on the spot. Offer to raffle off a prize or store credit for a form chosen at random every day.
  • In your bills and other customer mailings, insert a brief survey form with a dollar bill or inexpensive store credit and a paid return envelope.
  • Choose the top 10% of your customers and use a brief phone survey.

There’s no use worrying about proposed changes as if you are in a vacuum without feedback or assistance. And none of us is so smart that we can always evaluate future customer temperament or intent. Ask your customers to be part of the solution, and don’t view them as part of the problem.

There is, of course, one even better group to ask about your plans and from whom to solicit feedback: your employees.