Forget formality. Here's how's to really listen to customers

Sure, program reviews and strategic account sessions are important, but senior executives need to break out of formal meetings and really listen to their customers. Here's how.

Recently I was eating breakfast in a popular restaurant chain.   While there, I observed a way for the restaurant to notably increase its revenue and profit by making a make a change in the way they serviced customers.  My proposed change would increase customer traffic and serve customers more efficiently. 

Because I like this restaurant, I decided to share my idea with the company.  Let the dance begin!

I first went to their web site to find a senior manager I could speak with.  While the bios of senior management were proudly displayed, there was no way to contact them.  I sent an e-mail to their ‘General Contact’ e-mail address asking that their senior operations executive contact me.  I explained that I had an idea that should help them notably increase revenue and profit. 

A few days later I receive an automated e-mail response that directed me to their Purchasing Department.  I responded that my inquiry did not involve the Purchasing Department.  A few days later, I received another e-mail indicating that they had established procedures for me to become a vendor for the company.  Again, I sent back an e-mail indicating that I still wanted to speak with an executive responsible for restaurant operations.

About a week later a local area manager, for this restaurant chain, called me.  This person was courteous and listened to my idea.  After I explained my suggestion, this person agreed with me and said the company should certainly consider it.  She pledged to share it with her manager when they next spoke.  I do not believe my idea will be considered by top management or acted upon.

This experience caused me to wonder if customers in our market can easily access and speak with top management in our industry.  Companies, in our industry, have hierarchal organization structures with archaic ‘chain of command’ cultures.   This means that there are layers of people that buffer top management from customer realities. 

Yes, top management may attend large program reviews, strategic account planning sessions or address serious customer/contract problems but when do they just go out and listen? When have they popped into a key account, without the usual management entourage, to observe and listen?  Are they willing to listen to candid customer feedback?

I would let the program manager know that you are dropping by one or two days before the visit so the PM is not surprised.  There also are times to meet with the customer with or without the PM being present.  It is my experience that customers often share different information if the PM is in the meeting or not. 

I had one customer bring up several concerns with me that they would not discuss with our PM.  I asked Ed why and he said, “I like the PM.  We go to lunch often but I do not want to embarrass him”. This issue of receiving timely and candid feedback from a customer becomes of paramount importance long before the re-competes emerges.

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