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Find Out What Your Customers Want and Expect -- Before Your Competitors Do

By: Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE

Patricia Fripp CSP,CPAE is a San Francisco-based professional speaker on Change, Teamwork, Customer Service, Promoting Business, and Communication Skills. She is also a speech coach and author of Get What You Want! and Past-President of the National Speakers Association. Sign up for her free ezine

Satisfy your customers... or someone else will. Your prospects and customers can give you important feedback, both directly and indirectly. After addressing a group of sales contest winners in Hawaii, I was on the shuttle bus headed for the airport. My usual custom is to ask questions, so I said to the driver, "I bet your passengers tell you what they really think about their stays at these fancy resorts because they know you don't work for any of them."

"Oh, yes," he replied. "In fact, once a month, the general manager of the hotel where you stayed comes to the depot with a big box of donuts and has coffee with the drivers. While we eat his donuts, we tell him everything we've overheard about his hotel -- and about his competitors' hotels."

That is what I call Box-of-Donuts consulting. The hotel manager could have paid large fees to a research firm that would phone 1,000 guests and ask what they liked and didn't like. But that information couldn't possibly be as up-to-date or as honest as these drivers' feedback, nor would it give him valuable information about his competition.

Do you get, keep, and deserve your customers by finding out what they really want from you? The most frequently overlooked low- tech method is to talk to someone who talks to your customers and has no vested interest in their opinions. But this doesn't mean you don't also interview them formally.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotels, famous for customer service, do regular formal surveys with cards in the rooms and mailings. Someone asked their president, Horst Schulze, "Why don't you offer a 'frequent guest' program?" (Such programs are a major investment of organizational time and philosophical strategy.) Schulze replied, "We don't because only two percent of our customers have asked for them. What our customers do want is to have a bowl of fresh fruit in the room when they check in." So that's what the Ritz- Carlton Hotels provide. When you know what people really want, it is rarely difficult or expensive to make them feel special. Schulze was doing exactly right.

My friend David Garfinkel, author of THE MONEY-MAKING COPYWRITING COURSE, says there are five important answers you need to get from your customers, directly or indirectly:
  1. What do you like about buying from us?

  2. Why did you buy from us in the first place?

  3. What problems did you have before you bought from us?

  4. How did we help you solve those problems?

  5. How are things better for you now?
"That last answer," says David, "is very important. It's what a positive result looks like to a real customer, and it's going to look the same to your other customers and prospects when you tell them about it."

Start some creative brainstorming. Consider who else might know what your customers are thinking. Is there some comfortable and ethical way you can talk with these people? One- on-one questioning? Maybe invite a group for a breakfast? Think about who in your business knows what your customers want. Is there a service that can provide you with an effective, economical market sample?

Finding out what your customers want may seem obvious, but too often it's overlooked. After my morning program for a Fortune 100 company, I found the attendees were spending the afternoon seated at round tables, brainstorming the topic, "How can we give our customers better service?" Very innocently, I asked my client, "Oh, and where are the customers you've invited to sit in with your salespeople?" There weren't any. (This was like doing a survey of what hospital patients want by asking the doctors.)

Research your competition so you know what they're offering, then research your prospects' wants and needs so you can do more for them as customers than your competition. For example, a Federal Express executive, Gurn Freeman, told me how, early in his career, he decided he wanted to go into the moving business. First, he opened the Yellow Pages and saw 128 movers listed. He phoned the first twenty-five and made an appointment for someone to come and talk to him, saying he was moving to Phoenix. At the end of every interview, he took notes on what they had done right, how they could have done better, and anything they did wrong. Next, he put together his own sales strategy.

Gurn quickly became a top mover's representative. "My secret was to do something none of those other reps had done for me. If I had an appointment with someone who was moving to Phoenix, I would call the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and get all their free information and brochures for my prospective customer. I made it obvious that I had done my research before the sales appointment so I deserved their business. And I nearly always got it."

Of course, you will come up with great ideas for serving your customers, but there is nothing like asking them what they need, want, and appreciate. (The Ritz-Carlton Hotels changed the style of their room locks three times in eleven years to address the changing preferences and security concerns of their guests.) Asking shows your customers how important they are to you. It's how you satisfy them and keep them from going elsewhere.

Why should you try so hard to find out what your customers really want? Because your best customers are also the hottest prospects for your competitors. Satisfy them before someone else does! If other salespeople win over one of your loyal customers by offering more ideas and more service, maybe they have more right to the business than you do.

When you lose a customer, you lose two ways:
  1. 1. You don't get their money.

  2. 2. Your competitors do.
If you're not quite sure, isn't it a good idea to go to your customers and say, "Tell me in your own words what I have done for you"?


  1. What are you doing right now to deserve your customers' business?

  2. How will you research their wants and needs?

  3. How will you research what your competitors are offering?

© Copyright, 2002, Patricia Fripp

Other Articles by Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE

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