Hearing the voice Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2009

When the economy spirals down, Jim Laprade’s ears perk up. Listening to customers is more important than ever for the director of segment marketing at Barnes Distribution.

“The economic pressures and the changing of various markets are really driving an accelerated migration of customer values. And as a result of that, traditional solutions may not apply,” says Laprade, who works in the 1,600-employee distribution unit of Barnes Group Inc., a global manufacturer and logistics company with 2008 revenue of $1.36 billion. “So in today’s economy, listening to the voice of the customer can drive next-generation solutions.”

He recommends that companies establish a channel for regular customer feedback, such as a quarterly or annual satisfaction survey.

“You don’t want a laundry list of questions that is in the name of market research,” he says.

The survey should be brief, but the questions should be purposefully aimed at uncovering where you failed to meet their expectations, rather than just testing the opinions of the general public.

To narrow your focus, survey in phases.

“It’s important to begin with just a handful or a sample population of conversations — having your employees pick up the phone and call some key customers to get their arms around what’s really happening out there,” Laprade says.

This stage is a good opportunity to stratify your customers by size or end market, because each group may share certain needs and values.

This initial survey should include open-ended questions about how your current services align with customers’ changing needs. Start by asking what’s important to them and how well you fulfill that.

You can mold the common themes from those anecdotal conversations into a quantifiable survey for a larger pool of customers. For easier tallying of the results, the mass survey should replace open-ended questions with yes-or-no options and rating scales. For example, if the phone calls reveal requests for more frequent or more immediate contact with you, the broader survey could ask customers to rate their satisfaction with your communication.

At this point, you may choose to utilize a third party, such as a market research firm, to conduct the surveys.

Look beyond your customer base by reaching out to former customers who have taken their business elsewhere.

You may have to modify your questions for this group. Rather than asking what you’re doing right and what you can improve, you should ask what the competitor is doing better.

“It’s never, ‘Hey, where did we go wrong?’ It’s more about, ‘What was more attractive to you that made you choose someone else?’” Laprade says. “With everybody, it’s all about, ‘What’s your biggest pain point and aggravation,’ not just when it relates to your company, but, ‘What’s the optimal solution to be able to satisfy the need?’”

Don’t assume you made a fatal mistake, because the customer’s decision to switch may have come with a new sales representative. By keeping in touch with old customers regularly, you keep the lines open if they ever change their minds again.

Regardless of their reasons for leaving, you want to uncover what the competitor offers that you don’t.

Many times, the simple act of asking says a lot.

“We’re actually able to win back a good number of customers simply by reaching out to them and having a conversation with them,” Laprade says.

By just establishing a system to initiate those conversations, you may even position yourself to address customers’ issues before they leave.

“Ultimately, if you don’t have a standard process for customer satisfaction, then you’re probably going to have a problem with customer retention,” Laprade says.

How to reach: Barnes Distribution, (216) 416-7200 or www.barnesdistribution.com

Know your business

Jim Laprade knows he can’t please everyone. So while it’s important for the director of segment marketing at Barnes Distribution to get feedback from customers, he can’t always run with the results.

“If you make widgets and you’re going to have to build a spaceship to solve your customer’s problems then you probably look at that and say, ‘Well, maybe this may not be a market that’s in our sweet spot anymore,’” he says.

So before you can react to the results of a customer satisfaction survey, you have to make sure the solution will align with your business. You need to go in with an understanding of your company’s core as well as knowledge of the individual processes involved.

“The first step of the process is, ‘Hey, where does the weight fall, as far as common issues that may have caused dissatisfaction?’” says Laprade, who suggests measuring every solution against your current value proposition and long-term company goals.

In other words, you can’t change your company just to please one customer. You want a focused business that consistently satisfies, not “a compilation of ad hoc solutions that stretches and breaks your organization,” Laprade says.

“You can probably do just about anything to satisfy a customer,” he says. “But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, ‘Does it make sense?’”