How to Make Money With Customer Interviews

By Jay Curry, Customer Marketing International

I put this question a researcher who studied practices of small to medium-sized companies:
"How many SMEs conduct Customer Satisfaction research?"

Her answer: shockingly low number of 8 percent!

This is crazy situation when you consider most SMEs get 80-90 percent of their revenues from existing customers. Should it not be almost mandatory to find out what those customers think about your company?

Why don’t SMEs conduct customer satisfaction research? I think the answer is that customer satisfaction research takes a lot of effort, and the payoff is not visible in the short term, if ever.

But you can generate immediate revenue and profits if you position your Customer Satisfaction study as a Customer Interview.

A Customer Interview does ask the customer to provide his satisfaction scores on your value propositions, those attributes of your products, your service and the quality of your relationship with the customer.

But that’s not all. You also ask, through careful funnel questioning these questions:

1. What are new developments in your company the last year?
2. What are you hearing from your customer?
3. What are your plans for the coming year?
4. Are you familiar with all our products and services? (Usually they don’t even know all of what you are offering.)
5. What are your plans and budgets for the coming year?
6. Who is our competition in your company?
7. What can we do to get more business from you?

You can conduct these interviews face-to-face, via the telephone, through written or email questionnaires or via your website. But no matter which method or medium you use for the customer interviews, the payoff will be dramatic.

In fact, your first structured program of customer interviews is likely to be the most important marketing and sales activity you will undertake all year. Here’s why:

You will discover the real needs and problems of each customer. Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to tailor precisely your offers and products and services which meet the customer’s needs and solve his problems.

You will find out what aspects of your business are not satisfying each customer you interview and what things you are doing right. You can then immediately act to fix the problem for the individual customer and, with the aggregated information, improve aspects which seem to be less than satisfactory for many customers. A customer interview can also prevent the defection of a customer. It is not impossible that you will hear something like this: “I am glad you are here so we could straighten out this problem. Because, believe me, I was about to stop buying from you.”

You will be able to determine the current and future potential of each customer you interview. Through the use of funnel questioning, you can drill down to discover current budgets and future plans for purchasing your products and services. And if you do it correctly, you will also learn which of your competitors your customers are doing business with—or are trying to eat your lunch. This information is essential in helping you set realistic targets for each customer and decide how much time to invest in reaching the targets.

You will deepen your relationship with each customer you interview. Let’s talk about me! is an unspoken wish of just about everyone. The most fascinating topic of conversation for anyone is themselves and their business. Aside from gaining critical information, the process of asking questions, listening carefully and responding appropriately will inevitably strengthen your bond with every customer you interview. Normally a face-to-face customer interview scheduled to take 45 minutes. But quite often the customers find the experience so positive that they cancel other appointments to continue it for another 45 minutes of face time so valuable to you.

You will generate additional sales revenues immediately—and in the longer term. The customer interview is not a sales call. You inform the customer in advance that you want to get his opinions about his industry, his needs, his plans. And you tell him that you will not bring your order book. But quite often, during the interview, the customer will say: "While you are here, let me tell you about a situation which company may be able to solve." (It’s tough to resist the temptation to suspend the interview—but you should suggest that you will come back to the issue when the interview is completed!”

Let’s look at some examples of customer interview cases:

Temporary Help Agency
This company identified 1,000 customers in the middle of their pyramid which, because of their industry and size, should have been using their services more often. Each of the 100 managers of the sales offices were assigned 10 customers to interview. Equipped with a structured questionnaire and a training session, the managers got on the telephone, made their appointments and conducted the interviews.

The results:
1. The managers were able to make account plans for each and every customer visited.
2. The sales results of the interviewed customers were tracked during the following six months. They delivered 14 percent more revenues that those not interviews.

Clothing Retailer
A discount retailer of clothes primarily for women and children had hundreds of thousands of customer visiting their 10 locations. They didn’t know much about their customers and decided to make a start building a customer database.

To get this information, they conducted a customer interview in written form, by putting a short questionnaire at the cash registers which inquired about family size and ages, satisfaction issues and preferences for store hours. The promise: if you fill in this questionnaire we will send you an advance copy of our door-to-door flyers, thus you can come in and get the bargains before other people.

The results:
1. In a matter of weeks 200,000 interviews were completed and the information provided the basis of the long-overdue customer database.
2. The normally slow January selling season was given a real boost because the retailer discovered two types of baby clothes buyers:
3. Type A: Women aged 59-99 whom they assumed were grandmothers and godmothers.
4. Type B: Women aged 19-39 whom they assumed were mothers.
On November 20 they sent a high-quality mailing featuring expensive and exclusive children's clothes to the Type A women, with a signed, personal letter which comments that they have bought children's clothes in the past, and suggests the offered collection as gift ideas. On January 2 they sent an inexpensive mailing sent to Type B women as a post-Christmas sale of fine clothes at reduced prices, resulting in a January revenue increase of more than 20% compared with the year before.

Office Equipment Supplier (prospect interviews)
A supplier of photocopy machines wanted to break into a new market for their high-volume machines. Faced with need for qualified prospects, they used a combination of telephone and written questionnaires to interview the person in charge of photocopiers in medium to large size companies. The promise: the interviewee would get an analysis of copying patterns in his industry against which he could evaluate his own situation. (Plus an evening at a health club and the chance to win a weekend vacation.) The questions asked:
1. How many copies per month are produced in your company?
2. How many coping machines were installed in your company?
3. What is the brand and model number of your machines?
4. When is the expiration date of the rental contract date for each machine?

The result:
1. No less than 70 percent of the interviewees supplied the required information
2. The delivery of the report (by the sales person for qualified prospects) started a large number of sales cycles which resulted in a profitable customer base

The Cost Effectiveness of Customer Interviews
Despite hard evidence and the "gut feeling" that customer interviews pay off, some managers have a negative reaction to the idea.

Sometimes financial managers react this way:

“What? Doing an interview with every customer costs too much money! A telephone interview costs $10 each and we have 3,000 customers. That’s $30,000. No way!

But when you point out that it costs $360 per customer per year to send invoices (the normal cost is about $30 per monthly invoice), spending $10 to find out whether or not a customer will continue to do business with you is a real bargain.

And sometimes sales managers have an initial reaction like this:

What? Spending an hour or two with each customer takes too much time! We simply don’t have the time to meet with each customer and find out what their needs are and how we can help them solve their problems with our products and services. We have to go out and sell.

But when you point out that face-to-face a customer interview can take place during a normally scheduled sales visit, that with more customer knowledge your sales visit frequency with that customer can be reduced and that a number of interviews will score an (unexpected) order, then they see the light.

Shouldn’t you be conducting Customer Interviews?

Jay Curry originated "Customer Marketing," a structured methodology for implementing and profiting from CRM. Thousands of smaller businesses have adopted Customer Marketing, supported by Jay's books and tools which have appeared in six languages. His latest book, The Customer Marketing Method, is published by The Free Press. Jay is founder and director of
Customer Marketing International.
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