Last week I sat with a small management team at a software company, discussing their plans.  These people are moderately successful but are wanting to take their business to another level.  Like many mid sized business entrepreneurs, they are not sure how to do so.

It began quite simply!  I asked, “what do you think your clients think of you?”  For the first time, the room went silent.  Not because their client relationships are bad, but because they didn’t know.

I have always found it really useful to talk frequently to people about our businesses and find out what they think.  Of course most business operators don’t do it.  Why not?  In many cases they don’t know how to go about it.

So I have outlined below a process to go through which will help you to get some really great, relevant feedback about your business from the people who matter most.

Who do I talk to?
You should try to get the views of a cross section of the direct stakeholders in your business.  Your people, customers, suppliers, bankers, investors and even the local community with whom you interact from time to time.  As business owners or operators, there is always a risk that we don’t get out into the marketplace enough.  This approach gives you a reason to get out there and talk to people.

How do I talk to them?
Face to face is best, and you can do them one on one or in groups.  I have used both approaches and both work equally well.  Get out of your office and into a customer environment if you can.  That way you see some of their challenges first hand.  If you are busy, I suggest you get six people in a room, give them coffee and muffins and talk to them about your business.  You will be amazed at the useful and relevant feedback you receive.

What do we talk about?
After the introductions are done, you should lead with simple questions about your business and their relationship with you.  Here are some sample questions to get you started – they may vary slightly, depending on whom you are talking to.

  1. What is your immediate thought when our Company name is mentioned?
  2. How did you hear about us for the first time?
  3. How would you regard our relationship with you?
  4. Do you like us? (On a scale of 1-10 if you wish.)
  5. What do you think we are really good at?
  6. What do you think we are not particularly good at?
  7. Are there things we don’t do, that you would like to see us  doing? (Note: this could be anything from additional goods and services, to the sponsorship of the local “little league” team.)
  8. What would you do if you owned our business?

After using these questions as a conversation starter, you will find that the discussion takes off and the hardest part of the whole session is drawing it to a close.

Make sure you take good notes.  The answers to these questions will provide you with quick, easy and understandable insights into what some of your key relationships think of your business and maybe even your people.  It will also help you to identify opportunities for the future.  Once, immediately after one of these sessions with a group of 20 customers, I sat down and wrote a number of business cases for a stream of new business ideas – most of which worked.

I have used this approach for years with all sorts of people and in a range of circumstances.  Some of the “round table” discussions with customers have been among the most memorable meetings of my business life.  In my minds eye I can still see the “sixty something” grandmother sitting alongside a group of other business owners telling me how to run a media company!  And for the most part, she was right!

What do I do next?
The information that you collect from conversations like these provides fantastic input to a review or a health check of your business.  Better still, you can input this feedback into any planning process.  It will provide you with information to share with your team at the next management meeting, or sales meeting.
Your customers are often closer to the coalface of your business than you are.  Listen to them and learn.

© Bruce Cotterill