Business is Personal

When Obvious is Invisible

We're too close to understand what we're putting our customers through

By Mark Riffey

Have you ever had an interaction with a vendor that you don’t understand? As in, “How could they be this clueless?” I had one of these conversations lately, and suspect I’ve been the subject of them as well.

Missing the obvious

A few weeks ago, a nice lady asked us if we would stop sending mail to her deceased husband. His account already showed “retired/deceased”. This was odd, since we’d not sent direct mail to anyone in over a year. We wondered if a recent email reminded her of a mail piece from that period. We send automated reminder emails when something’s about to expire. Since we filter retired and deceased people out before sending reminders, we wondered if we had a bug.

She didn’t call for no reason, so we started digging. We guessed someone had used an export from our customer system to create a mailing – and used the wrong export. One of our exports is for generic use. Mail / email work shouldn’t use that export, yet it happened.

Exports designed for that use automatically exclude people marked as retired or deceased. They’re not going to buy anything and they don’t want us to bug them. This intent wasn’t enough to avoid the problem.

Since a generic export is useful at times, we took a more assertive step. After the change, address info moves to a non-exportable location when this situation occurs. Ideally, this change allows us avoid this type of problem in the future – without deleting the info permanently.

I then asked the business office to reprocess everyone marked as deceased or retired. So we got that cleaned up and feel comfortable it won’t happen again.

You might be thinking this situation doesn’t apply to your business. It’s possible. It’s also possible you have a different flavor of the same problem.
For example, consider companies that do home improvement. They re-roof homes, (re)carpet them, or replace old carpet with hardwood floors. Do these companies send offers to addresses known to be rental property? Apartments, for example. Wasteful. Annoying. Obvious.

What you don’t ask

Last week, a group of long term customers (25+ years) were discussing a product from a vendor common to them. They were wondering aloud about fundamental aspects of the vendor’s product. The vendor has never documented or explained them, despite requests for that info.

As the discussion ended, I asked a rhetorical question. “How many of us have customers who are as confused about our products as we are about (vendor’s)?”

No one answered. We all knew the answer wasn’t one we’d like. Even so, what could have become a complaint session morphed into a valuable question.

Asking ourselves what’s right in front of us that we’re not seeing.

Wondering what our customers don’t understand about our company and our product. The reason is obvious. We’re too close to understand what we’re putting our customers through.

Question their obvious

I’ve listed some suggested questions at the end of this piece. I hope the questions are useful to you from a tactical angle, but they aren’t the point.
The point is that we need to be aware of how easy is it for leadership to miss issues obvious to our customers.

Suggested questions:

  1. What are we doing well?
  2. Is there anything we do that doesn’t align with the rest of what we do and how we do it?
  3. What annoys you about our business?
    Note: Some answers may identify intentional business components you don’t plan to change. That’s OK. Ask anyway.
  4. Is there a reason you’d hesitate to renew our service?
  5. Is there a reason you’d be uncomfortable recommending us to a peer or a friend?

My favorites are questions 2, 4, and 5.

The last two feel like they’re asking the same question. They are. The interesting thing is that they often get different answers. The first question brings answers specific to the customer’s situation. The second question produces more serious issues – often big picture items. These are often things customers accept as an annoyance they’ll tolerate. The price of doing business with you.

The only way to learn of these issues is to ask.

Mark Riffey is an investor and advisor to small business owners. Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a strategic, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s site, contact him on LinkedIn or Twitter, or email him at mriffey@flatheadbeacon.com.

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