I recently heard someone tell the story of a friend who blags upgrades for hotel rooms and flights on a regular basis.  He asked them how they pull it off.

The answer was breathtakingly simple.

“I just ask”. 

As simple as that.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get. 

So if you want to know what the world sees when it looks at your business, guess what?

Just ask. 

Without asking, you’ll never know.  And if you don't know, you'll have no idea what action to take.  You'll be wandering round the metaphorical maze indefinitely, pursuing dead ends, wasting time and money on things you think will make your business more attractive to the world.

We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not answered, we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell.
— James Stephens, Irish poet

Big (useless) shiny buttons

If you're already doing some asking, how useful are your questions?

Do you gather valuable, meaningful, targeted information?  Or do you find yourself scratching your head over shallow feedback that tells you next to nothing?

A couple of months back I was leaving a store when a console at the exit caught my eye:  two big shiny buttons – one green with a “smile” icon, the other red with a “frown” – and a sign inviting customers to “Rate your experience in our store today”.

I didn’t bother.

Why not?  I honestly didn't know which button to hit.

I really can’t think of a better example of the kind of feedback that (presumably) ticks a marketing exec’s box but provides precious few insights - particularly when bored kids use it as a free game while their parents argue about who has the car keys. 

It's about as useful as a chocolate fireguard.  Novel, fun to use, but of no lasting value.

It offers a stark binary choice – happy, not happy.  Black, white.

OK, so you've discovered that 48% of your customers were "happy" on a Thursday, but only 34% the following Tuesday.  You can spot patterns – like more happy customers the day you gave away tenners (contact me for details of our highly-recommended course on rocket science). What does “happy” mean, anyway? Not as good as ecstatic, but better than raging, I guess.

Knowledge is power – but this particular knowledge isn’t. Ask yourself this: does it empower my business to take any action? 

More to the point, did they think your displays were so beautifully lit that the products practically sold themselves? Did the product range exceed their expectations?  Were they greeted with a warm smile that cheered them up in the middle of a bad day? Were they reeled in by your brochure with words and images that resonated with them?  Were you playing their kind of music? Did your signage make their life easier by guiding them effortlessly to the right part of the shop, meaning they were able to get home sooner (you may love your business, but not everyone wants to spend their day there)? Did your interior set their pulse racing? What exactly were they happy with? What left them wanting more?

If your feedback doesn't provide this kind of information, it's pretty much meaningless.  It ends up as little more than a star rating to seduce customers with (if it’s positive), or to be hidden from them (if it’s not). Perhaps someone out there can tell me why businesses - or their marketing teams - persist in collecting useless data.  Maybe they know something about it that I don’t. Or maybe it just means they can carry on fooling themselves they're doing something.

Take the turn off, then…turn-off?

Questions are like tools – if you have a job to do, you select the tool appropriate for the task.  I recall as a child watching wide-eyed as an elderly neighbour attempted to brush away floodwater with a rake.  Even at that tender age I recognised something wrong with that picture.

If you want valuable, meaningful, actionable information, you have to ask the kind of questions that will deliver it. 

Here’s one for starters – a customer’s first impression as they turn the corner and clap eyes on your premises.

Were they blown away, underwhelmed or (horror) actually turned off?

If they were turned off, the salesperson cheerily greeting them as they walk through the door might as well go home, because he or she will have their work cut out.  (There is of course an exception - when a customer knows you sell what they want cheaper than the competition, they'll probably hold their nose just long enough to shop with you, no matter how poor the experience).

If they were turned off, you need to know.  It could be – in fact, it is - doing irreparable damage to your business. 

And, without wishing to sound like I’m on a loop, the only way to find out is to ask.  

Ask customers, ask friends or business colleagues that you trust, ask employees - or even just sit down and spend time asking yourself. 

But be brutal, and avoid hearing what you want to hear.  Feedback that makes you feel better isn’t what you’re looking for.

In the long run, you’ll thank yourself.  You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

See you next week, when we’ll be talking about the wiring between your customer’s eyes and their wallet.