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MARKETING: Are you in a position to hear your customers?

August 28, 2006

Our family's license plate renewal tags have always arrived by the deadline date each year, but this year the end of the month rolled around and our five cars still carried last year's stickers. It dawned on us that we'd all be driving illegally. Our son drove to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles office nearest his home to see if he could get his two tags.

My husband and I both had client appointments to which we had to drive. I had WIBC on the radio while I finished morning household tasks, and I heard Greg Garrison promote the fact that BMV Commissioner Joel Silverman would be the next guest on his talk show. On impulse, I called the WIBC phone number and was the first caller in that segment of the show. I explained to Mr. Silverman that my entire family was driving illegally that day. I explained that both our households had sent in renewal payments well before the deadline, but we'd received no response-no tags, no letter of explanation, nothing. He asked for my name and contact information and promised to have his office follow up with me.

Sure enough, later that day after a series of phone calls and e-mails, I had in hand letters of 60-day extensions for our vehicles. And the communications with the BMV people were very pleasant and helpful.

The episode got me thinking that we need to recognize the fact that, by appearing on Garrison's show, Joel Silverman put himself in a position to hear the bureau's customers. By making that effort, he could hear the complaints and concerns, which allowed him to provide solutions to customers.

In business, you also need to put yourself in a position to hear your customers. That's how you can learn what your customer likes and dislikes. That's also how you get ideas for developing new services or products.

We've gone through the process of buying and selling houses this past year, and used three Realtors. The third one was truly the charm. The first two, who have long years of experience and great reputations, each nixed the idea of open houses. The third Realtor, who successfully sold the house, insisted on open houses. Why?

Because that's how he could find out what prospects were thinking, how they were reacting, what they were looking for. With a couple of open houses, he put himself in a position to hear the customer-and to better position our house for selling.

My father, long retired now after a career as president of a sizable bank in Michigan, used to visit a different one of the bank's 40-some branches every Saturday morning. Why? To talk to employees and customers everywhere. He put himself in position to hear his customers, both internal and external.

Many years ago on a trip through Europe, we happened on a small restaurant on a back street of Florence. The chef himself came out to our table when he heard from our server that two Americans had come to his restaurant. With our fractured, elementary Italian and hand gestures, we were able to convey that we wanted to taste his special ties. He appeared flattered and arrived at a delicious solution. He served us himself, giving both of us a one-half serving of two of his specialties. He had put himself in position to hear his customers from America. And I still can taste his lemon veal today!

Like the business managers who believe in the "walk-about" theory of management, you can take the temperature of customers and discover a great deal of information about what they like and don't like about your products and services. You can also find inspiration for new products and services.

We know a local businessman who is developing a new product that appears to have the makings of success. And where did the idea come from? Customers who told him what they wished they could buy-if only it were available. He may achieve even greater business success because he put himself in a position to hear his customers.



Millar is CEO of Millar Communication Strategies Inc., a public relations firm that offers strategic planning, including crisis planning/communication/recovery. She can be reached at 2500 One American Square, Indianapolis, IN 46282, or call 639-0442.
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