David Cristello, Founder and CEO, Jetpack Workflowsoftware for accounting and bookkeeping firms, and host of Growing Your Firm podcast.
It is difficult to measure change when: everything around you is in motion. And lately, change has become the new norm for small businesses: Your industry has changed, your customer needs have changed, your work environment has changed, and your workforce has changed. I know that change often starts where your comfort zone ends. So you’re probably wondering, “Am I doing enough in my business to keep up?”
Agility, being able to quickly adapt to new circumstances, is at the heart of business evolution, but business leaders often struggle to determine when to make a change and what take actions. Experience shows that the answer is closer than you may think: Ask your customers.
Your customers may not tell you before the end of the year when to launch new services or exactly which subscriptions they want. However, if you open the dialog, they will often talk to you about their plans, their challenges, and their concerns. Reading between the lines can help you decide how to respond, service, and what might be missing from your solutions.
A few tips to help with customer insights:
1. Choose your goals wisely. Select clients who are currently the most profitable, not just the ones you enjoy working with.
2. Make it a little extra. Offer to treat your customers to lunch or coffee to talk about your business relationship.
3. Ask questions. What are their goals, forecasts, spending philosophy, and any major financial decisions or changes they see over the next 12 months?
4. Get feedback. Also, ask for their opinion on your company’s products, services, and people.
5. Build a ‘dream image’. Have your customer describe the product or service they would like to see from you, or what information they would like to see on a dashboard of your company.
6. Count. Since people are really supposed to open up, consider using the phrase “Tell me more about that” as a follow-up technique to short answers.
7. Keep going. You don’t have to be good at these conversations to provide good information. Rest assured, you’ll get better at getting customer insights along the way.
8. Aim for ten-plus. Try to have at least 10 of these conversations before making any adjustments or reactions.
Customer conversations are mutually beneficial. They can help deepen relationships and build trust with your customers, while helping you better manage change. If you’ve never been in an advisory role before, customer conversations can build that relationship and open the door to additional sales opportunities or a referral partnership.
The conversations may start to follow similar themes. This makes sense, since your customers likely have many similar needs that led them to come to you. But it’s the details and the personal stories that will help you navigate change and come up with new ideas and new services.
Conversations with your customers can help you increase your agility to:
Stand out in a busy market.
If you offer a service that others offer, you may be fooled. You may have noticed that your competition is no longer the three brick-and-mortar businesses in your area, but rather three hundred online businesses ready to acquire customers with digital marketing and loss leader promotions. This challenge clearly requires an adaptation for small businesses to remain competitive.
By talking to customers who are already on board, you may learn what sets your company or your approach apart and use that for marketing. Or maybe you’ll learn what you need to set yourself apart. For example, for an accounting firm, in my line of business, you might learn that offering tax planning services or having a college savings professional on staff is a good idea in addition to freight services. Or maybe you recognize the opportunity to develop a dashboard or industry report that helps clients visualize their situation.
Experiment step by step.
There is a concept popularized by Peter Sims in his book Small bets, which advocates making small and incremental changes. The amazing thing about small bets is that they can reduce the risk factors for adaptability. When you hear from customers that you need a brand new service or a major change, you may panic and worry that the change is a major departure from your core business and will be expensive or time-consuming. Instead, the approach allows you to experiment with micro-changes to evolve, iterate, and optimize.
Understand your value.
My own customer conversations revealed an eye-opening find: customers loved one of our services so much that they would pay more for it. Understanding that value has allowed my company to shift our sales process and increase our prices. Your agility quotient is based on confidence in a potential change. Getting customer input – or validation – does that. Having an actionable path you’ve heard from 10 or more of your most profitable clients achieves this too.
In business, it’s easy to get bogged down in business operations and avoid risk when things go well. However, agility is not about breaking the status quo. Rather, it’s about proactively anticipating what your business needs to do to stay competitive, relevant and profitable. By sitting down with ten or more of your best customers, you’ll learn about their thought process and plans for the future, so you can change your own strategic thinking and plans to better serve them. The answer to your agility quotient lies with your customers – just ask them!