(Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Jan. 22, 2014.)
I've always considered myself a good listener. But when it comes to running a small business, am I really hearing what my customers are telling me?
I pondered that question a lot in the waning days of 2013. After all, what good is a company if it's not responsive to the wants and needs of its customer base?
So after five hectic years of doing-doing-doing, I decided to slow down for several weeks and embark on a "listening tour."
The purpose: I wanted to get a clearer picture of who my customers are. I wanted to understand their likes and dislikes, their needs and wants. And I wanted to use that newly gained knowledge to help me plan for 2014 and the years to come.
Here's what I did: I arranged meetings, one on one, with more than a dozen people who were closely familiar with my business. I also met with some who hardly knew I existed.
In a separate move, I tapped the (unpaid) services of a marketing friend who helped me develop a customer survey. Finally, I took a long and hard look at the data to see what could be gleaned from 2013 results.
Yes, I wanted to ask specific questions when I met with customers or prospects, but I was also determined to do more hearing than speaking. I would listen not only for what they said but for what they actually meant.
Here's what I discovered:
First of all I learned that listening - really listening - is hard, especially when I was confronted with realities that flew in the face of opinions I held closely as a business owner.
Most of us opened our shops and offices with a missionary's zeal, convinced we knew what our customers both wanted and needed. In some instances our instincts were dead on target. In other cases, well, not so much.
One of my most memorable meetings involved a business owner who plows the same basic waters that I have been attempting to navigate. In a sense, we might even consider each other competitors.
Over lunch at Rooster's he reminded me that successful business owners must always be innovative. Some of his greatest gains, he said, came from having to invent new products to meet his customer's need, not simply selling them what was already in his inventory.
You're not a real estate agent selling pre-built homes, he advised.
He spoke at length about going into sales meetings having no clue what a potential client might actually need, but he always sought to ask probing questions to gain fresh insights (his own version of my listening tour).
I also learned that people are extremely generous with their time and advice. They want to see us succeed.
The customer survey was a veritable gold mine of insights and revelations. I strongly suggest it.
By wording my questions just so (that's where my marketing friend was most helpful), I was able to zero in on key issues affecting growth and profitability. Some of those takeaways are already being teed up for implementation. Other things I had planned in the vacuum of my own mind have now been put on hold.
Not everything I learned was a surprise. For example, I confirmed that my customer base is exactly the demographic I imagined it to be, right down to age, gender, education and recreational habits. Still, I believe I have a better concept of who my customers are and what motivates them.
I learned from the survey that my customers are extremely busy and look to me to help make their lives easier in some very specific ways.
All in all, my listening tour may have been the smartest time I've spent as a small business owner. Only time and effort will tell, of course. But for now, I feel smarter and more focused as I approach this new year with excitement and renewed expectations.
As the year proceeds, I'll keep you posted on how it stacks up against reality.