Last week I attended an excellent, thought provoking program sponsored by Inc. Magazine called "Secrets of Business Success: Building Loyalty with Customers and Employees." Our speaker, Cindy Solomon, asked us some tough questions that made us think about what we are and are not doing to keep customers loyal.
She pointed out that customer "satisfaction" isn't enough to build loyalty. We have to do better than that to keep our current customer base. Of customers who defect, 80% are actually satisfied with our service. So what does this mean? It means we have to go above and beyond satisfaction - so we need to find out what our customers' perceptions of us and our business actually are. Then, we must change their perceptions from dissatisfaction or mere satisfaction to pure loyalty. So, we have to ask them for feedback. In this article, I will discuss some of my ideas on feedback - how to get it, its value and how to make use of it.
Asking anyone, especially a customer or client, for feedback is not an easy task. Even when we have healthy self esteem and feel that we have performed admirably, there is always that nagging fear that we will hear something we don't want to hear. First, we must tell the person we ask that we want serious and honest comments. Second, we must assure them that we will not be on the defensive, that we won't argue and/or rationalize - that we really appreciate their time and sincerity. Brian Tracy - one of my all time favorite gurus - says that, "Willingness to ask for feedback is the mark of the superior person." He goes on to say that when we receive honest feedback, we will know our strengths and weaknesses, so we can grow that much faster. We need the objective input of others.
I learned the value of feedback while working in the restaurant business. I started as a server at a Marriott Hotel where we were asked to give our guests evaluation cards to fill out. At first I hated doing this, even though guests were thanking and praising my service along with leaving hefty tips. Then we had a contest to reward the person who turned in the most cards (which I won, by the way). The feedback was mostly laudatory, but I also picked up some suggestions on how to be even better. And, if a guest was unhappy about something besides my service, the hotel benefited by knowing. When I switched to a different restaurant, I learned even more about the value of feedback. We had "shoppers" who filled out a questionnaire from the moment they got out of their vehicle. It was eye-opening. You see, if no one is ever asked for feedback, most will not complain, they will just leave, never to return.
As a free agent, independent professional and freelancer, I need to know how I am doing. So how do we ask? A suggestion is, "What is it that I am doing that is holding me back from being better?" or, "Tell me what you liked and didn't like about my service." Then, listen. The only words that should come out of your mouth are, "Tell me more." or, "For example?" This will not be easy, but will shoot your career forward once you get past the politeness of your respondent. You see, we are like a fish in a bowl. Others can see us as we are, judge us and pass it on to others. No one is perfect, but everyone can do better. Besides, we will also hear about strengths and talents we might not even realize we possess.
Other people to ask for feedback are those who are in the same or similar business as we are. The Small Business Association has an organization called S.C.O.R.E. which consists of a group of volunteer, retired business people who will answer questions and share their past experience and expertise with you. It is also a good idea to ask for a short interview with someone who is doing what you do, or want to do, and pick their brain - even better, treat them to lunch or breakfast. My one caveat is not to waste their time (see the following paragraph).
Once we get this valuable feedback, it is important to take action. If we just get feedback that either makes us feel wonderful or lacking and react positively or negatively without acting on it, then what was the point? Recently, I was part of a group who were asked by a young woman preparing to give a seminar at a regional conference. She wanted us to preview her presentation and then be "tough" with our comments and tips. It was a dry and technical topic and she was OK but not very exciting. Trusting and knowing her and her sincerity, we gave her many suggestions on what worked and what didn't. Two weeks later, I witnessed the updated presentation at another meeting. She had taken all our suggestions, used them and even more. Her presentation was professional, interesting and exciting. I give her a lot of credit for being willing to listen and act. We all gained from the experience!
What about giving feedback? Oftentimes, I am asked for feedback. First, I make sure that the person asking truly wants helpful feedback. There are some who ask for it, but will quickly become defensive if you suggest any changes. Read how they are reacting - if they are looking for polite praise, it is OK to tell them the good. Then there are those who ask for suggestions on how to improve, take up lots of your time and effort and then never follow through with any action. I see this often in the fitness classes I teach. I am always happy to stay after class to discuss nutrition and/or how to get started with a fitness plan. As time goes on I see them gaining rather than losing fat and working out less and less and finally disappearing (maybe returning a year later and asking the same old questions). I am also on a discussion list where one of the members asked for feedback. Another was upfront and honest - and, I will admit, a bit harsh, but told it as it was. Others on the list became disgruntled and disparaging of the person who gave the feedback, and I am afraid that we may have lost a valuable member of the list. So, be cautious when asked for feedback. Not everyone really wants it.
Be brave, fashion the questions you will ask your customer/client, and then listen. Remember, your willingness to ask and receive is the "mark of a superior person" - and, I feel, a successful one.
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