Problem solver Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

Joe Sanda wants to get into his customers’ heads. The founder, president and CEO of Astute Solutions says that the only way to understand what your customers want is to ask them.

“We’re driven by listening to what some of the problems are with our customers and what their opportunities, needs and wants are,” Sanda says.

As head of the $12.8 million provider of software and solutions for consumer-focused companies, Sanda points to Astute’s work with British Airways. By paying attention to what the client’s needs were, the company recently created a prepaid debit card to compensate passengers at a point of failure, such as when baggage is lost, a concept that Sanda and his 65 employees hope to expand to other airlines.

Smart Business spoke with Sanda about how to create great concepts with your clients and deliver what they want.

Q. What are your keys to growing a successful company?

Focus on your customers. Try to understand what they want, what they think and what they feel. That’s something we really strive to do.

Q. How do you keep that focus on the customer?

First, we try to make sure we’re driving our product direction based on the market and the customers, not just internal R&D. A lot of product companies try to come up with a product, as opposed to listening to what customers are looking for and what the market’s looking for. We try to be customer-focused that way, and we get some of our best ideas from our clients and prospects.

Second, we try to get in touch with our customers’ feelings. We do that in a variety of ways, whether it is a focus group, an advisory council or customer surveys that go beyond a satisfaction survey — actually listening to what they’re looking for and connecting with the voice of the customer. We try to understand what our customers are feeling, how well we’re doing, what we can do better and then provide feedback.

The third step is trying to make sure you have a customer feedback solution. Have some way of collecting data that’s actionable, and use that to improve what you’re doing based on what your customers are telling you.

Periodically, I’ve hired a consultant to talk to our customers about what they would like to see us do better or what we could do better with a product. It’s not to say that we don’t talk with our account managers and professional services people, as well, but we make sure we collect some independent input, where we might find out things we wouldn’t know otherwise. We’re not just counting on one channel.

Q. Why are those steps important?

High growth is based on meeting the needs of a market and meeting the needs of your customers. If you think you’re in touch with it but you’re really misconnecting, you’re missing opportunities for growth.

Some of our best product ideas come from our customers. They have some great ideas, but putting those ideas into motion and creating new products and services based on those is also a key to growth. It keeps you in touch.

Q. How can other business leaders apply those steps to their business?

Have a system to capture some of that information, what customers are asking for and looking for, in an actionable way. We take that information back to each of our respective departments ... and work on a continuous improvement program that allows us to be more responsive to our customer base. We put that in place systematically and close a loop with our customers.

Q. What happens if companies don’t follow up on client feedback?

Missed expectations by customers. Customers think that they’re listening, and when they don’t see action taking place, they actually get more disappointed with the company.

We developed a system for McDonald’s to capture some of this actionable information and then take it out to where it can make a difference — again, the idea of continuous improvement — all the way down to 15,000 franchise owners. It’s creating a solution that would actually get the information out of corporate and take it down to where it would make a difference, the local stores.

Q. How do you foster innovation among employees?

You have to set aggressive but achievable goals. I’m a firm believer in trying to raise the bar a little bit. Occasionally, we’ll miss a stretched goal, but I’d rather reach up a little bit and occasionally miss it than to never have tried.

It’s OK to fail trying to achieve something that’s a little better than average. I try to encourage that and try to run the company that way. If you never try to reach up a little higher, you’re never going to do it.

HOW TO REACH: Astute Solutions, (877) 769-3750 or