Excerpted from 78 Important Questions Every Leader Should Ask and Answer by Chris Clarke-Epstein with the permission of the publisher

Note from Bob:  Don’t miss the great questions that Chris Clarke-Epstein shares below.  You will instantly see how valuable asking your customers/clients/donors these questions will be!   

A well-placed question to a customer and a questioner who listens well to the answer can, in itself, be a great customer service strategy. It can also be a great place for leaders to begin practicing their questioning skills. Leaders who do not look for opportunities to interact with a wide cross section of their customers will pay a price for this ignorance. In this chapter, you will find questions you can use as you take advantage of customer interactions.

Listening to the answers to your questions, especially when it’s your customer you’re listening to, requires skill. Take a deep breath and really listen. Listen to more than the words. Don’t be defensive and give in to the natural impulse to explain away the negative comments you hear. Accept your customer’s comments in the spirit in which they’re offered and don’t forget to say thank you.

Why do you do business with us?

Do you know why your customers buy goods and services from you, Do they love you? Asking this question will help you find out. Asking this question and analyzing the results will provide you with a foundation of information that will help you formulate your strategy. When a leader takes the time to talk to customers, both external and internal, relationships are built. When a leader goes beyond talking to a well-crafted and well-executed questioning strategy, long-term customer partnerships can happen.

If a customer shares their love for your location, hours of operation, products and services, or your innovation and design, you’ve uncovered a champion. If your customer says their loyalty isn’t to your products but to an individual in your organization, you’ve learned something different. If they confess that they do business with you grudgingly and are waiting for someone else to introduce a similar product and service so they can buy from them, you’ve uncovered a problem.

No matter how your question gets answered, you now know things you didn’t know before. Asking your customers this question and those that follow gets you immediate feedback and insight into your future. Some of the answers might make you uncomfortable; all of them will provide you and your organization opportunities to improve and grow. You will hear reasons to celebrate, reasons to make changes, and reasons to re-examine your policies and procedures. You’ll have work to do.

Why do you do business with our competition?

This is the flip side of the last question. By asking this question, you’re seeking information that will allow you to compare and contrast your customer’s opinion of you and your competition.

I don’t know any business or organization that doesn’t have competition. I don’t know any business or organization that doesn’t need to know more about their competition. It seems to me that asking your customers about your competition is an obvious place to start learning. Your view of your competition is inherently biased. You have preconceived notions of your superiority of product, your extraordinary customer service response, and your exceptionally speedy customer responsiveness. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be working there, leading a team, right? Having a positive mental image of your organization is good as long as it is tested against your customers’ opinions on a regular basis.

It occurs to me that fear might stop you from asking this question. What if you found out that your competition was really doing a good job? What if your customer confided that they were switching to your competition? Think of it this way: What if your customer was thinking those things and you didn’t know about them? Without the information gained by asking this question, you have no chance to change things for the better. Shouldn’t you be more afraid of that, You may lead in an organization that is fortunate enough and big enough to have entire departments that measure customer opinions. That doesn’t replace the value of hearing those opinions for yourself. Asking your customers questions about your competition will help you understand the reports that land on your desk in a deeper way.

Finally, asking a customer this question might spark the awareness that you really care about their opinion. Certainly it will help them understand how much you value them as a customer.

How and when have we made it hard for you to do business with us?

Your customers never encounter a policy or procedure problem when they do business with you, right? When was the last time you checked? Every business needs systems, policies, and procedures to function. Employees need to understand their jobs, the technologies that support their work, and the boundaries that limit their authority. Leaders need to deliver decisions in context, envision opportunities for the future, and watch budgets. Where is the voice of the customer heard? Internal systems are seldom viewed from the outside, and until they are, you can’t call yourself customer-friendly. The only way to understand how your systems and processes feel is to ask a customer. Just as it is impossible to proofread something you’ve written, it is impossible to judge your own systems with a clear eye. Asking this question of lots of customers can be an eyeopening opening experience, and the answers might provide some clear directions for changes that need to be made to your policies. Making things hard for your customers, even when it’s by accident, isn’t a good idea.

What will you need from us in the future?

I remember one of my earliest business conversations involved the kitchen table, my father, and a company called International Business Machines. I was about eleven. Dad was telling us that his company had gotten a contract to make a part for IBM, but his team didn’t know anything about the product the parts were going to be used in. Even at eleven that didn’t make much sense. “How,” I asked, “can you tell if what you’re making is right?” “We can’t,” my Dad replied. “We just wait for them to tell us how close we are to getting it right and then we do it over again.”

This is the partnership question. Leaders who want to deepen their relationships with their customers ask this question often. In fact, it quickly becomes one of their favorite questions to ask. Understanding your customer’s view of their future helps you get a glimpse of your future. Asking this question will get you lots of data. Targeting those customers who think and plan for the future and are excited about the possibilities the future hold for them seems like a great way to plan your future success. These are the customers you’d like to partner with. But you’ll never know who they are unless you ask the question.

If you were me, what’s one thing you’d change about my organization?

This question is designed to take the conversation to the level of specific action. This is the What would make its better? question, with teeth. You’re asking your customer to express the thoughts and ideas they had while waiting on hold, fighting to get an invoice corrected, or shaking their head over one of your policies. You’re asking your customer to tell you the truth, and that’s a big deal. An even bigger deal is what you do with the answer to this question. Listening and asking for clarification are acceptable responses. Explaining why you can’t or won’t try the suggestion isn’t.

A note of caution. If you ask a customer this question about change, don’t be surprised if your customer asks it back at you. What would you say? And if this original question-and-answer session turns into an ongoing dialogue, you may find yourself facing a partnership waiting to happen.

How can we effectively tell you that we’re grateful for your business?

How do you reward your clients: Often, in an attempt to build new business, we forget to value the business and clients we already have. Asking how to show gratitude is key to avoiding that trap. Not only will you hear about ways to say thank you, you’ll discover which thank yous are most meaningful for your customers.

Chris Clark-Epstein 2Chris Clarke-Epstein, Certified Speaking Professional is a change expert who has spent the last 28 years challenging diverse groups including senior leadership teams, middle management supervisors, and health care professionals to apply new knowledge.  Author of and contributor to more than 15 books, Chris teaches and writes in critical areas such as understanding the dynamics of change, delivering effective feedback, dealing with conflict, and building high performance teams.  You can connect with Chris @ Change101.com




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