vendredi 15 décembre 2006

questions leaders need to ask customers

ever had an unsatisfactory conversation with a
customer service representative? One of those situations
where you felt the person didn’t care, couldn’t do anything
to fix the problem, or that the person’s answer couldn’t be
trusted? Several years ago I had a particularly bad experience
with an American Airlines customer service representative.
I asked for and was transferred to a supervisor, and together
we worked out a solution to the problem that had prompted
my call in the first place. We wrapped up our conversation,
and she repeated her apology for the way I had been treated.
I explained that I appreciated her words and hoped that my upcom-
ing trip on her airline would help erase the lingering concerns I had
about doing business with American Airlines. As I hung up the
phone, I turned to my husband, Frank, and said, “If she’s smart, I’ll
have an upgrade when I check in for my flight tomorrow.” “Yeah,
right,” he replied.
Most women hate to admit when their husbands are right. Frank
was. I took my flight—in coach. It was okay, as was my return trip.
Not good or bad, just okay. I got home three days later and found
a soggy box on the front porch. It had been delivered while both of
us were out of town and left to the mercies of the northern
Wisconsin late fall weather. Dumping the dripping box into the
basement sink, I opened it to find ruined pastries with a note of apol-
ogy from the American Airlines supervisor. I don’t think I’ve flown
American since.
I’m tempted to make this a quiz. How many customer service
problems can you find in this story? For now, I’m willing to skip the
unreliable package delivery process, the fact that she knew I was
going to be away from my home, and the absurdity of an airline send-
ing baked goods, and go right to what I believe is the most telling
part of the story. She never asked me the best and simplest customer
service recovery question ever conceived: What can we do to make you
feel happy about doing business with us again? My answer would have
been “Upgrade me.” With a few keystrokes she’d have been done,
and I would be writing a different, happier story for you to read. No
requisition for baked goods, no delivery form to fill out, no subtract-
it-from-the-bottom-line expense, and no waste of her time.
This isn’t a book about customer service. It’s a book about ques- tions and answers. Did you get the point? A well-placed question to
a customer and a questioner who listens well to the answer can, in
itself, be a great customer service strategy. It can also be a great place
for leaders to begin practicing their questioning skills. Leaders who
do not look for opportunities to interact with a wide cross section
of their customers will pay a price for this ignorance. In this chap-
ter, you will find questions you can use as you take advantage of cus-
tomer interactions. While we’re on the subject of asking questions
Not to know is bad; not to wish
to know is worse.
—Nigerian proverb
of your customers, let me remind you of the warning I issued ear-
lier in this book. Listening to the answers to your questions, espe-
cially when it’s your customer you’re listening to, requires skill. Take
a deep breath and really listen. Listen to more than the words. Don’t
be defensive and give in to the natural impulse to explain away the
negative comments you hear. Accept your customer’s comments in
the spirit in which they’re offered and don’t forget to say thank you.
By the way, if you happen to work for American Airlines and
would like to practice your questioning skills, please feel free to give
me a call.

7. Why do you do business with us?
Remember the song from Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye asks his
wife of many years, “Do you love me?” It’s a wonderful moment, and
you can tell couples who have been together for a long time by their
behavior during that scene. They poke each other, grin, hold hands,
or mouth, “Well, do you?” There’s a lesson for business in that song.
Do you know why your customers buy goods and services from
you? Do they love you? Asking this question will help you find out.
Asking this question and analyzing the results will provide you with
a foundation of information that will help you formulate your strat-
egy. When a leader takes the time to talk to customers, both exter-
nal and internal, relationships are built. When a leader goes beyond
talking to a well-crafted and well-executed questioning strategy,
long-term customer partnerships can happen.
If a customer joins Tevye in singing of their love for your loca-
tion, hours of operation, products and services, or your innovation
and design, you’ve uncovered a champion. If your customer says
their loyalty isn’t to your products but to an individual in your orga-
nization, you’ve learned something different. If they confess that
they do business with you grudgingly and are waiting for someone
else to introduce a similar product and service so they can buy from
them, you’ve uncovered a problem. No matter how your question
gets answered, you now know things you didn’t know before.
Asking your customers this question and those that follow gets
you immediate feedback and insight into your future. Some of the
answers might make you uncomfortable; all of them will provide you
and your organization opportunities to improve and grow. You will
hear reasons to celebrate, reasons to make changes, and reasons to re-examine your policies and procedures. You’ll have work to do.
8. Why do you do business with our competition?
This is the flip side of the last question. By asking this question,
you’re seeking information that will allow you to compare and con-
trast your customer’s opinion of you and your competition.
I don’t know any business or organization that doesn’t have com-
petition. I don’t know any business or organization that doesn’t need
to know more about their competition. It seems to me that asking
your customers about your competition is an obvious place to start
learning. Your view of your competition is inherently biased. You
have preconceived notions of your superiority of product, your
extraordinary customer service response, and your exceptionally
speedy customer responsiveness. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be
working there, leading a team, right? Having a positive mental
image of your organization is good as long as it is tested against your
customers’ opinions on a regular basis.
It occurs to me that fear might stop you from asking this ques-
tion. What if you found out that your competition was really doing
a good job? What if your customer confided that they were switch-
ing to your competition? Think of it this way: What if your cus-
tomer was thinking those things and you didn’t know about them?
Without the information gained by asking this question, you have
no chance to change things for the better. Shouldn’t you be more
afraid of that?
You may lead in an organization that is fortunate enough and big
enough to have entire departments that measure customer opinions.
That doesn’t replace the value of hearing those opinions for your-
self. Asking your customers questions about your competition will
help you understand the reports that land on your desk in a deeper
way. You may lead in a small organization where decisions are more
often made by hunch than by research. Your quest to listen to your
customers’ opinions of your competition is even more important.
This information can provide valuable insights into your customers’
behavior in the future.
Finally, asking a customer this question might spark the aware-
ness that you really care about their opinion. Certainly it will help
them understand how much you value them as a customer.
9. How and when have we made it hard for
you to do business with us?
Not many organizations choose to have conferences and hold meet-
ings where I live in northern Wisconsin. (Maybe our annual snow-
fall has something to do with that decision.) That means that, to do
my work, I need to travel. When you stay in hotels often, you sign
your name frequently. Check-in. Check-out. Room service bills. Bar
tabs. Snack from the gift shop. Each form has three lines, one for
your room number, one for your signature and one for the
command. The other day I realized that, because I paid
attention in penmanship class, my signature is perfectly legible. So
I declined to follow the
command. The server
who picked up my check noticed this omission and asked, nicely, if
I would print my name. “Why,” I replied, “since my signature is per-
fectly readable?” “Because you have to,” he announced. “Not nec-
essary,” I answered. “I’ll have to call the manager,” he said. “Give
the check back to me,” I demanded. With the offending charge slip
back in my hands and tempted to lower his tip, I scribbled my name
illegibly in the heavily disputed
space. Why, if my
handwriting is a nonissue when I pay for a meal in the hotel’s restau-
rant directly with my MasterCard, does it become a matter of state
security when I want to charge something to the hotel bill that will
eventually be settled with the aforementioned MasterCard? Not a
big deal, but enough of an annoyance to encourage me to find a
restaurant outside the hotel for dinner the next time.
Your customers never encounter a policy or procedure problem
when they do business with you, right? When was the last time you
checked? Every business needs systems, policies, and procedures to
function. Employees need to understand their jobs, the technologies
that support their work, and the boundaries that limit their author-
ity. Leaders need to deliver decisions in context, envision opportu-
nities for the future, and watch budgets. Where is the voice of the
customer heard? Internal systems are seldom viewed from the out-
side, and until they are, you can’t call yourself customer-friendly.
The only way to understand how your systems and processes feel
is to ask a customer. Just as it is impossible to proofread something
you’ve written, it is impossible to judge your own systems with a
clear eye. Asking this question of lots of customers can be an eye-
opening experience, and the answers might provide some clear
directions for changes that need to be made to your policies. Making
things hard for your customers, even when it’s by accident, isn’t a
good idea.
10. What will you need from us in the future?
I remember one of my earliest business conversations involved the
kitchen table, my father, and a company called International
Business Machines. I was about eleven. Dad was telling us that his
company had gotten a contract to make a part for IBM, but his team
didn’t know anything about the product the parts were going to be
used in. Even at eleven that didn’t make much sense. “How,” I asked,
“can you tell if what you’re making is right?” “We can’t,” my Dad
replied. “We just wait for them to tell us how close we are to get-
ting it right and then we do it over again.”
This is the partnership question. Leaders who want to deepen
their relationships with their customers ask this question often. In
fact, it quickly becomes one of their favorite questions to ask.
Understanding your customer’s view of their future helps you get a
glimpse of your future. Asking this question will get you lots of data.
First, there’s the basic information. Information that will give you
insights into how you’ll have to innovate or modify your processes
and products to meet your customer’s need in the future. Customers
who can’t articulate their view of the future may not be a long-term
asset for you.
Next, you can judge the excitement level. The future is a funny
thing. People and organizations that are excited about the future
generally have a promising future. People who are pessimistic about
the future often face bleaker times. Who would you rather have on
your client list?
When you combine the quality of the information you get from
the customer with the enthusiasm level generated by giving the
answer, you’ve got impressive insight into your own crystal ball.
Targeting those customers who think and plan for the future and are
excited about the possibilities the future hold for them seems like a
great way to plan your future success. These are the customers you’d
like to partner with. But you’ll never know who they are unless you
ask the question.
11. If you were me, what’s one thing you’d
change about my organization?
This question is designed to take the conversation to the level of
specific action. This is the What would make us better? question, with
teeth. You’re asking your customer to express the thoughts and ideas
they had while waiting on hold, fighting to get an invoice corrected,
or shaking their head over one of your policies. You’re asking your
customer to tell you the truth, and that’s a big deal. An even bigger
deal is what you do with the answer to this question. Listening and
asking for clarification are acceptable responses. Explaining why you
can’t or won’t try the suggestion isn’t.
A note of caution. If you ask a customer this question about
change, don’t be surprised if your customer asks it back at you. What
would you say? And if this original question-and-answer session
turns into an ongoing dialogue, you may find yourself facing a part-
nership waiting to happen.
Actually, you’ll have better luck asking this question of a cus-
tomer who considers you a partner rather than a vendor. As the
world of business has gotten more complex, customers are looking
for the opportunity to work with their suppliers instead of just buy-
ing from them. Working together in a partnership relationship, see-
ing the world from a broader viewpoint than either one of you could
ever envision on your own, allows both parties to gain. These part-
nerships go beyond the traditional working toward a win/win situ-
ation. They exist to create. Create new ways of going to market, new
ways to solve problems, and new ways to define success.
Partnership carries with it the desire for two-way feedback. In
fact, the only way partnerships work is when both parties are willing
to make the commitment to a continuous stream of feedback—what’s
working and what’s not. Terry McElroy from McLane Company is
quoted in Dance Lessons: Six Steps to Great Partnerships in Business &
Life by Chip Bell and Heather Shea as saying, “We are constantly
asking ourselves, ‘Are we doing business at the level we want to?
Are we worthy of this partnership?’ And we want partnerships with
people who ask themselves those same questions.” Another set of
good questions.
12. How can we effectively tell you that we’re
grateful for your business?
This may be hard for male readers to understand, but when a
woman moves, finding a skilled hairdresser is a critical, top-of-the-
to-do-list task. When I moved to northern Wisconsin, I asked for
recommendations, made appointments with several of those people,
and chose one to be my official haircutter. Over the years that she
cut and styled my hair, I never had a bad hair day. When I’d men-
tion that I knew someone who was moving into town, or someone
who wanted a new look, she’d hand me a card that offered 10 per-
cent off their first visit. I counted. Over the ten years I went to this
hairdresser I brought her twelve customers—all of whom visited her
at least once a month. (You do the math.)
On the day that I had a hair emergency and she couldn’t fit me
into her schedule, I started thinking. How come she was rewarding
the new customers I was recruiting for her and I wasn’t getting any
reward? Why wasn’t I worthy of even some consideration for an
emergency appointment? It was the beginning of the end of our
client/hairdresser relationship. (Have you ever noticed how quickly
resentment can build?) It didn’t take me very long to find someone
else who solved my bad-hair-day situation. The next month, as my
possible replacement hairdresser cut my hair, I mentioned it was my
birthday that week. “Oh,” she said. “You’re in luck. I give my clients
a 50 percent discount on their birthdays.” Guess who has been cut-
ting my hair for the last ten years.
Showing that you’re grateful doesn’t always involve giving
something of monetary value. Businesses that express their grati-
tude do so in many ways. They use their customer’s names—all the time. They keep track of preferences and make suggestions that
solve problems. They send cards on days without a holiday attached.
They make eye contact and listen. They anticipate. They’re creative.
They fall in love with their customers and show it.
How do you reward your clients? Often, in an attempt to build
new business, we forget to value the business and clients we already
have. Asking how to show gratitude is key to avoiding that trap. Not
only will you hear about ways to say thank you, you’ll discover which
thank yous are most meaningful for your customers.
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Learning when and how to ask questions of your customers is where
you begin because asking questions of your customers is a good
habit for leaders to develop. Spending time listening to your cus-
tomers is an even better one. In many organizations, people go to
great lengths to keep their leaders insulated from the customer.
Nothing should be further from the reality for a leader who wants
to deserve the title of leader.
Keeping close to a cross section of your customers is a key activ-
ity of a leader. Quick phone calls, meals with key customers, and
face-to-face meetings with major clients are just a few of the ways
The real questions are the
ones that intrude upon your
consciousness whether you
like it or not.
—Ingrid Bengis, American writer
customer-focused leaders stay in contact with the people who make
their businesses possible. Not doing these things feels way too risky
for them. Contrary to the old saying, “No news isn’t good news…
it’s just no news.”
Leaders know better than to face the future with no news. Crafting
your questions before you connect with your customers is the best
habit of all.
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1. Which of the questions in this chapter would you have the most
difficulty asking? Why?
2. What strategies do you use to stay personally close to your cus-
tomers? 3. What other questions would you like to ask your customers?
4. How could you ask these questions?
5. What questions do your customers ask you?
6. How did you answer them?
7. What is the one thing you want to remember most from this

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