How to talk to your customers

We're making the case for senior business leaders to get out and physically talk to their customers or patients. If you know where you want to be, but you struggle with how to get there, start here. Let us talk you out of sending out yet another survey while giving you practical, real-life ways to interact with your customers.
How to talk to your customers (not with a survey)

If you’re struggling with what to do next, the priorities of your work, and how to change your organization to be nimble, customer-first, and data-driven, getting a customer’s perspective can be a great catalyst for change. Understanding who they are, what they like to do, why they use your service or buy your product, why they don’t use your service or buy your product, how they live their life, expectations they have, and on and on is information vital to your overall strategy.

This isn’t typical “persona” work, as we’re really not interested in how old they are and if they like smartphones or not. We are seeking to understand what they think, feel, and what they struggle with.

Don’t send a survey

You may be thinking, “Yeah, that’s why we do satisfaction surveys. We also have a survey pop-up on our website too.” Give me a few minutes to challenge you here.

The biggest problem with talking to Customer’s or Patient’s digitally is that it’s too easy … you can offload all of this onto your team and just see the results as a neat and tidy spreadsheet.

If you only talk to Customer’s digitally (through surveys, emails, pop-up’s) then you are missing out on a ton of information. A few thoughts:

  • A 3% response rate is AWESOME for feedback surveys. But, you’re missing out on talking to at least 97% of your Customers or Patients
  • We work in business, so we’re connected to our email via our computers or smartphones all day, every day. But many of your Customers aren’t. You’re betting on them to actually check their email in a timely manner
  • What about Customer’s that aren’t signed up for your email list? How many places do you shop that you don’t get emails from? I would bet that most of you reading this aren’t signed up to receive emails from your local grocery store, but you probably spend $500-800 or more a month with that particular business
  • It immediately narrows your focus on existing customers, already-engaged customers, Customers that had such a good or bad experience that they are willing to take time to tell you about it, or customers that have already purchased your product or service. Feedback like this creates an echo chamber where we hear more about what we are already doing while ignoring the opportunity to transform our business

The biggest problem with talking to customer’s or patient’s digitally is that it’s too easy. You can come up with 10 questions and blast it out to your email list or get a third-party app installed that pops up from time to time. Even better, you can offload all of this onto your team and just see the results as a neat and tidy spreadsheet.

Although not bad (surveys are a great way to get feedback), as a leader who must come up with and execute on a digital strategy for your business, you need to go talk to your customers.

Why don’t we do this? I’m not 100% sure why there is such a hesitancy for business, marketing, or IT leaders to leave our offices and spend time with customers or patients. It’s probably lack of time, fear of what would be discovered, legal concerns, fear of talking to people we don’t know, or any other reason, but doing so can totally change the way you make decisions.

What does this look like in real life?

It can be uncomfortable to go talk to your customers or patients, but it’s not hard. Here are some ideas to get started:

1. Sit behind the information desk or help desk.

  • Listen to the questions Customers have, where they are directed to go to find the solution. Ask the attendant questions as they go through their day. Look at the systems they interact with, how they find information, and ask them their frustration points.

2. Sit next to a call center agent and listen to customer service calls.

3. Shadow a nurse that provides screening services.

  • This lets you get in a clinical setting without being too intrusive to patients, as you need to leave once medical services are being provided. Let them know you are a representative from the website department (or another plain-language explanation of who you are) and are there to understand better how things work. You can pick a lot of stuff up from small talk with your patients.

4. Shadow a store sales associate or work a fitting room, customer service center, or go fold clothes for the day.

  • This gets you into how day-to-day operations work while getting access to Customers. Make small talk, tell them you’re from corporate and trying to make their experience better, or just ask them why they decided to come to your store today.

5. If you’re an e-commerce company, order your own product online. 

  • Go through the entire new customer experience. Google general keywords to find what you sell. Try to find your product, sign up for your email list, go through checkout, etc. If you need to conceal who you are, get a family member’s mailing address and credit card. How do your shipping notifications work? Call or email Customer Support with a problem and see how it’s handled. What condition did your box come in? Did the invoice make sense? How was the return process? Did you feel like you were taken care of? If you sell through a 3rd party reseller or on, go through that experience as well.

6. Offer a gift card to a customer or patient in exchange for a five-minute interview.

  • We did this recently with a healthcare client and for a $10 Starbucks gift card, we were able to get really good insight as to why they never used their online tool to for appointments. Waiting rooms are a great opportunity to utilize customer or patient’s time, as they are waiting anyway. If family members are waiting for a patient in surgery, if a Patient is waiting on their appointment, if a customer did site-to-store for pick-up, or even during an in-person check-out process, utilize these connection points to conduct short and friendly interviews.

7. Ask a trusted customer to shadow them for the day.

  • This is especially helpful for B2B companies where you are selling a product or service that other businesses rely on. We tend to see our service or product in a vacuum, not realizing that our customer’s have 1,343 other things that are going on in their day-to-day lives. You’ll get exposed to all the hats they wear throughout the day, learning how to make what you sell more seamless and easier to use.

No matter which route you take, do not skip talking to your customers. By taking the time (even if just once-a-year) to talk to real-life customers or patients you can ensure your leadership and overall direction is one that is customer-first. Make it a culture thing for your organization.

Even Delta is now requiring Director-level and above to fly coach if the flight is less than three hours. Why? Because they need to experience what the majority of their customers experience, which is flying in the cheapest coach class. Nothing makes you understand the plight of a customer more than sitting in a middle seat of a full flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Washington D.C. It helps with your priorities, how you set customer expectations, how you deal with customer service problems, and how you make customer-first business decisions.

Don’t expect your customers to tell you what to do

It’s easier to explain this with an example. Think about a ride share solution like Uber or Lyft. If you could go back in time 15 years ago and ask someone standing in a cold rain, “How could I make your taxi riding better?” They would not be able to articulate, “I want an app on my smart phone that allows me to see taxi’s in real-time. I can connect my credit card to the app so I never have to get cash our my card out at the end of my ride. I can also see where the car is, have an ETA on when they will arrive, and even see a picture of my driver.”

Instead, they’d tell you they hate having to wait out in the weather, hate having to make a phone call to a dispatcher, and hate having to carry small bills in cash. They would identify the problem, not the solution.

Go in with this expectation for what you’re doing. You are talking to customers and patients to identify their problems. But, keep in mind, they may not even be able to articulate what their problem is. The good news is that you can discern through these real conversations.

They say: “I came to this location because my mom logged into my account to get an appointment for me.”

  • Problem: We don’t support joining individual accounts to create family accounts

They say: “My account manager is really helpful, especially when I’m troubleshooting a problem. They are responsive and get me the data I need, most of the time.”

  • Problem: We don’t offer a self-service view of data and force our Customer’s to go through their account manager

They say: “I had no idea these urgent care centers were part of the hospital system.”

  • Problem: Our data isn’t linked between our service lines, so none of our Patients know we are the same company

They say: “Site-to-store is great, but not when I have to wait 15-minutes for pick-up.”

  • Problem: Our in-store associates aren’t creating a seamless experience for Customers because our stores aren’t structured for in-store pickup

They say: “I love the super-fast shipping. It’s a surprise when it shows up 2 days after I order it.”

  • Problem: We invested all this time and money into our fast shipping to compete against Amazon, but we don’t do a good job notifying our customers

We have this vision of who we want to be. We even have these moments of clarity and inspiration where it’s exciting to really see the future and what our businesses can be. But, we often hide behind our teams and nice offices, afraid to talk to the very people we are selling to.

Change starts at the top. You can’t be a customer or patient-first organization if you don’t talk to customers or patients. So, get out there.

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