Make talking to your customers a learning experience

Man talking on phoneOne of the things I like about my line of work is that I’m always learning something new. Over the past year, I’ve learned about cybersecurity, satellite technology, electric utilities and asset/liability management, to name a few of the topics I’ve written about for my clients. In each case, I got my information the old-fashioned way: I talked to people.

For example, I was recently asked to write an article on automatic circuit reclosers. What the heck is an automatic circuit recloser, you might ask? Well, I put that question to one of the engineers I interviewed. He gave an answer that was easy to understand and that will stick with me long after the article is published. “It’s like a ground fault interrupter (GFI) outlet in your house, only on a much larger scale,” he explained. “Reclosers on electric power lines work the same way, only they’re programmable and can reclose multiple times.” That explanation was better than any I could have looked up online or read in a book.

The interview is a tried and true means of getting information, and I highly recommend it. I write frequently about credit unions, and I can learn more from talking to a handful of credit union executives on the phone than from reading a pile of trade publications. It helps that, in my case, I’m often interviewing them for an article, but you can use the same technique to learn more about your clients’ business or your own industry.

It’s amazing the things you can pick up by simply talking to your customers or members—not just information about their company or area of expertise, but valuable intelligence that can help you improve your own business and better serve your customers.

I have a client whose business is designing and installing satellite communication systems. She and I are working on a new website for the company. Last week, we were on the phone comparing designs and features we liked on other websites. The conversation turned to what makes a good “About” page. This will be the third website we’ve built together, and I’m seeing an evolution in her thinking that I like. A previous site took a traditional approach to the About page: formal portraits of the company’s principals with standard bios. Now she was showing me examples of About pages that were much more creative, less formal and incorporated design elements with content to create a fresh take on what a company’s all about. It made me think about my own website (very traditional in that regard) and the fact that I haven’t updated it since I started my business in 2011. Hmm, I thought, maybe it’s time for me to make some changes, too.

Learning comes in many forms. You may not always have time to read a book, take a class or sign up for a seminar, but you can (or should) be able to find time to talk to your customers, members or stakeholders. Don’t ever discount the value of learning from them, whether it’s from a conversation, interview or a quick survey.

There’s also a business advantage to talking to your customers. Paul Schoemaker, writing in Inc., suggests that if you take the time to learn from your customers, you’ll know what they want even before they do. By seeing the world through their eyes, you’ll be able to anticipate their needs and beat the competition.

As Schoemaker says, “Try to listen with a third ear, as an anthropologist would, to what your customers are saying to you. If you can truly hear them, they’ll tell you all you need to know.”

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