5 Customer Strategy Questions You Must Ask

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/rlodan01/
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/rlodan01/

Your customers are the most important part of your business – without customers, your company wouldn’t exist – and your customer strategy is best built by talking to those same customers. By asking them (and yourself) the questions that matter, you’ll be able to make the best decisions for your business and for your customers.

Serve Customers by Asking Questions

Gary Hoover says it well in an interview conducted in 2011: customer strategy starts with serving customers.

Only people can focus on customers.  And all businesses are customer-centric whether they think so or not.  It’s just that some are focused on screwing their customers while others focus on making customers’ lives full of delight, and everything in between.  Those who don’t cherish and respect and innovatively serve their customers will not be long for this world. —Gary Hoover

Strategy, like other processes, gets better as you iteratively improve it, so you should strongly consider using a rubric – like the 5 Whys Method pioneered by Toyota – to force yourself to answer the questions that need to be asked. These questions, like the 5 whys, build on each other in a manner of philosophic first principles. You can ask any one out of order, and they are more powerful when used as a holistic process to guide your strategy.

Question 1: Who is your customer?

The first question you need to ask to set your customer strategy is to honestly ask yourself about the identify of your customers. Do they belong to small businesses, or large ones? Do they communicate on only one channel (like email) or do they tweet, Facebook, and Pin all day long? The best way to find out is to get out of the building and go to the customer’s office and talk to them about their likes and dislikes, and about the ways their business can be more successful. If you can’t visit them, survey them.

And if you want to make customer personas to guide your team with the insights you learn, here’s some information to get you started.

Question 2: How does your customer like to be contacted?

We all have our preferences about how to be contacted by a company with which we do business. Those communication norms stem both from our comfort level with the business, the type of service we buy from them, and how often we contact them normally. You might think it’s strange to be contacted by your insurance company more than once or twice a year, and you might welcome a weekly call from a recurring service provider.

Be flexible and allow your customers to tell you how often they like to be contacted, and don’t overwhelm them with messaging. Once you determine how often your customers want to be contacted, you can use an integrated calendar that incorporates your CRM and inbound marketing tools, or you can simply use a spreadsheet to manage this communication. You might recognize this strategy from content marketing – here’s a template for a content calendar.

Question 3: What will you do when your customer is disappointed?

Customer strategy sounds great when the customer is happy. So what should you do when things go wrong, or simply not as planned? There’s a great post here on the Desk.com blog about dealing with demanding customers, and an important part of your customer strategy is deciding how you will respond to the unhappy customer (whether it’s your fault, their fault, or somewhere in between.) A very useful rubric that you can consider is the idea of Acknowledging the issue, Apologizing for any inconvenience, Offering to find out information, and Answering with a fact-based explanation (including offering a workaround if one exists.)

If you can’t solve the disappointment, address it directly and your customers will appreciate avoiding a run-around explanation. You may not be able to solve their problems, and you can give it your best effort. An excellent way to check your experience for new customers is to periodically sign up for a new account on your own service and write down any observations that seem relevant.

Question 4: How do you know when your customer is successful?

It would be awesome if all of your customers told you when they had a rousing success with your product or service. More often than not, they won’t tell you when they are able to do the job they hired your product to do – because to them, “it just works.” So part of your customer strategy needs to be working actively to understand the conditions that are necessary (perhaps not sufficient) for success. That might mean that all of the documentation needs to be in synch with the 4 steps to complete an action in the product; it might mean that the team members are all briefed early in the product process on a new feature; and it might mean creating a beta group to test how customers will react to the thing you think they should be able to do.

You’ll know when your customer is successful both when they tell you, and when you anticipate the necessary steps for them to have completed along the path to success – and make them as easy as possible. One of my favorite ways to check whether I’m building success for my customers is to check out the Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development and flip to any page for a good idea.

Question 5: What’s Next?

The practice of asking questions, as in the 5 whys method, allows you to get the raw material to determine your customer strategy. And these questions that we’ve posed here are not an end in themselves. The act of asking these questions provides the raw material that you can use to pick the people, processes, and tools that will allow you to build a customer strategy to understand your customer, communicate with them effectively, know when they are disappointed, and when they are successful. Asking these five questions will get you started, and building the resulting strategy is an ongoing process. When you build the right customer strategy, it’s easy to create, communicate, and deliver unique value to your customers.

Why you should always ask…

photo by http://flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms

I get satisfaction from helping people to meet other people, and to helping them find answers (or at least ideas to help them) to the questions they’re asking. It opens up my horizons to all of the possibilities I haven’t yet considered. And yet I often hear from people I talk to that they don’t want to ask others for help.

It could be because:

  • ˆthey’re afraid of rejection – asking the question increases the chances of someone saying no;
  • they’re not sure whom to ask – when you start thinking about a problem or question the solution (or people who might be able to help you solve it) might not be immediately evident;
  • they don’t like ask because they feel it obligates the other person to answer – and they’re not sure what they have to offer in return.
To all of these worries, I suggest the words of Shervin Pishevar, “The answer is ALWAYS no if you don’t ask.” Shervin shared these words at the Big Omaha conference and they resonated strongly with me then and even more now. I realized that the best advice I could give to anyone with questions is to help them connect with people who can answer those questions, or to help them ask.
Your social graph (and mine) are getting more and more effective every day if you reach out to people and have conversations (not just connect, but actually engage with those people) across services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. We’re not going to have fewer of these inboxes in the future – we’re going to have more – and the sooner that you reach out and take advantage the more advocates you’re going to have on your side to help you solve problems.
It seems so simple, and yet the result can be so powerful. Think of it as a personal “Board of Directors”, or an extended group of people who care about making you better. All you have to do is find the people in your network who can help you answer questions – they might not be the people you think of out in the world – and just ask them to help. If they don’t want to help, they’ll say no. But I hope they will try – like I do – to make a difference by trying to answer the question. (Thanks, Shervin.)

I’m not sure what Quora is for … and I use it anyway

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/skipnclick/

I have no idea how to explain Quora to other people who like to try software.  Borrowing a turn from It’s this for That, I’ll try to explain with a few examples:

  • It’s a Question and Answer site for People Who Don’t Normally Answer Questions;
  • It’s Facebook for Encyclopedias;
  • It’s a UX Mess for people who like to complain about complicated sites.

In all seriousness though, I think Quora is quite interesting because it allows you to ask questions directly to people and allows them to respond in more than 140 characters; it’s easy to share your answers; and it’s social and fun to follow questions.

Long-form answers are still interesting

In a world where more and more answers have to be under 140 characters, it’s great to have a place where you can create long-form answers that are not quite blog posts.  Quora is the perfect place to ask a question that will help you to build a blog post or answer a complicated question without writing a complete blog post.

Sharing Knowledge is Good

Quora is a fun way to share knowledge, and already I’ve learned some random things I wouldn’t know directly from Quora, like the conversion rate of AOL Customers to those darned CDs, and I’ve also taken the opportunity to share answers and ask questions on Twitter and Facebook.

It’s Fun to Follow Questions on Quora

Where else can you find a question posed to (and answered by) Steve Case of the aforementioned AOL marketing campaign?  Quora allows you to ask and answer questions, but also to follow the questions asked and answered by other people.  You can watch conversations evolve, decide to participate, or not.

Ultimately, Quora’s interesting to me to ask and answer questions, share knowledge, and to find out what other people are talking about (without having to read a million blogs every day.)

Why (and how) are you using Quora?

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