The other day, as I was informally sharing strategies with a sister entrepreneur, I realized just how crucial listening is to success in business. By listening, I mean a lot of things - collecting data and feedback, inviting suggestions, and actually listening to people's anecdotes. There is so much useful information to be gleaned!
By contrast, I think about a recent experience I had with Bell, where listening to my very legitimate beef seemed systemically impossible. The upshot of that episode was that Bell lost my business. A behemoth like Bell doesn't care, but the loss of even one customer to a business like mine has a negative impact worth avoiding at all costs.
So, ways of listening.... Technology has made it very easy to ask for and receive instant feedback. An example: I asked my Facebook fans what kind of knitting class they most wanted in October, and they answered "socks." Easy.
All kinds of software programs are both idiot-proof and free these days. Mail Chimp is fantastic for sending newsletters, and has great data-gathering features too. You can see who opens their email, how often, what they link to... it's a goldmine if you know what to do with the information. I was initially shocked to find that only about 40% of the people who voluntarily signed up for my newsletter bother to open it, but then I thought about how often emails I receive go straight to the delete folder. Sometimes I know I'm too busy to do whatever it is the email is proposing to me, but that doesn't mean I won't take a good look another time (point in case - theatre listings). My newsletter recipients have months where they are gung-ho and open the email repeatedly, and months when they don't. But unless they unsubscribe, I can assume they're content to be receiving my information. People often say, "I'm glad you get your newsletter, even though I haven't had time to come to a workshop lately." Staying connected to your customers is critical! We all want to feel a part of something.
Survey Monkey is another fabulously simple program that allows people to anonymously give feedback. I've sent out two annual surveys, and had a surprisingly high return rate. People are busy, but we all like to be asked our opinion, and will give it freely as long as we feel somebody on the other end is listening. Consumers are too smart to fall for trickery, so there is no benefit to offering a chance at a prize for joining an email list or answering a survey, in my opinion. Let your customer do it because they want to.
On the low-tech side, there is tried and true white/chalkboard. I have one in the shop where people can add their workshop suggestions, and I record and keep them. I also ask workshop participants to fill out a evaluation which ends with an invitation to suggest more workshop topics. People almost always take the time to do so. Just ask!
My final thought is this: customer service is all about the relationship. People are becoming less and less comfortable conversing without a screen, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. A lot of customers are only too happy to share stories with just a little prodding. About how their grandma used to make these... and how much their sister loved the... these anecdotes are the best market research tool of all. I discover all kinds of new things about why people are buying certain products.
And I can respond with tidbits about how something was made, or who made it, and the customer gets a story to go with their purchase.