Smart small business owners ask their customers for more than orders

When was the last time you asked your customers for more than their business? If you can’t recall, you may be overlooking opportunities to learn about and engage them so you can meet their needs more effectively.

While the value of asking customers for ideas, feedback, guidance, and opinions seems obvious, it is hard to do effectively. We are all bombarded by requests for information, so you need to ask about what’s meaningful to them in ways that let them know you appreciate their input. Smart small business owners and executives find creative ways to ask their customers for input in at least five general areas.

• Room for improvement (e.g., constructive criticism) – Asking customers if there is anything they have not enjoyed about doing business with you will identify opportunities for improvement based on their experiences. Have they been mystified by your telephone menu options? Confused by contacts from company representatives they don’t know? Searched in vain for information on your Web site? None of these may be deal breakers to current customer, but you certainly don’t want to annoy them or to turn off prospects. Seek constructive criticism informally and through your customer service staff.

• Input for specific decisions – All businesses are occasionally faced with decisions that are best made with customer input. For example, a grocery store used their entryway to set up a map and asked shoppers to put a pin in it to show where they lived. That information helped inform their decision on where to locate a new store. Some decisions can be turned over to customers completely, as the Florence Savings Bank does in its customer choice community grants program, which uses customer votes to make awards to local charitable organizations.

• Unmet needs – New or improved products and services are usually less risky when they clearly satisfy the unmet needs of existing customers. This can be as simple as changing your hours of operation or as complicated as inventing a new solution to an emerging problem.

Unmet needs may be more likely to be expressed in the course of open-ended conversations. For B2B companies these may occur during visits, phone calls, trade shows, or on the golf course. For consumer products, conversations on social media or at the point of sale are both possible sources. Web-based, phone or in-person surveys may make sense in either B2B or B2C situations. In executing surveys, raise participation by offering some follow up such as a copy of the results or a report on the actions that resulted. For another view on surveys read “Are Your Surveys Worth Your Customer’s Time?” by Rob Markey on the HBR Blog Network.

• New product development – Getting customers’ perspectives on a new product or service at the design or prototype phase can make the difference between an offering that is on target or a near miss. This can be critical when a significant investment of time and money is at stake. Ideally, ask a select group of customers to test an early version and give feedback that you will consider in finalizing the go-to-market product. Because such beta tests require significant effort from your team as well as your customer, it is important to design them carefully. For more on the beta process in the context of a product launch, read  “Making the Most of Every Marketing Dollar” from Knowledge@Wharton.

• Referrals, testimonials and recommendations – Many owners feel uncomfortable asking for these directly. Nevertheless, they can be effective tools for attracting new prospects that come with positive, third-party feedback about doing business with your company. Social media can be one vehicle for asking, as can personal requests that come at the end of a particularly positive project. My dentist’s office handles this gracefully with small signs in the waiting room saying that it is very much appreciated when current patients recommend the practice to others in the community.

I hope I have energized you to reach out to customers and ask. But before you do, keep in mind one final point. When you ask, it is essential that you be prepared to listen. It is natural to resist information that makes you uncomfortable or goes against your assumptions. If either you or your customers start to squirm, it could be a sign this is the most important stuff you could possibly hear.


Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.


  1. Trish says:

    Excellent article. I have also advocated that marketing is a dialogue not a broadcast. Businesses and organizations that constantly seek feedback and act upon it are always going to be more competitive and more successful. I also loved some of the easy low-tech ways (push pins on map.) that you gave

  2. Karen Utgoff says:

    Thanks Trish. Glad you liked the low-tech approaches. FYI, Florence Savings Banks' customer choice program is a great example of one that has both low-tech and web-enabled components with physical and on-line voting, which let's each customer participate based on individual preference/habit.

    I would love to hear of other clever techniques (low or high-tech).

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