Market projections are a valuable, yet somewhat elusive, part of a company’s strategic planning process. Many of us feel ignorant about what’s coming, especially as the “experts” can’t seem to agree on much about our economy and where it’s headed. Nonetheless, it’s important to learn what key trends are facing your industry and company and include these trends in decisions you make about how to address the future.

Trends that impact your industry and company should be reviewed in several categories – social trends (labor force changes), economic trends (where specifically are strengths and weaknesses occurring?), political/legislative changes (what will new legislation mean to your business), technological trends (what is new that might help you improve productivity?) materials (what’s cost-effective and green?). However, one trend that is fundamental to knowing how to lead your business is this: What have your customers been thinking and feeling about your service or product? What do they -and others like them – want from your business in the future?

All true leadership is about adapting to change. Let managers focus on tactics and executing those tactics correctly. Leaders must determine what is the next right thing to do. Information from both inside the company and external to it allows leaders to make key strategic decisions. Customer feedback is the most powerful external data you can obtain to shape and lead your company. And that customer feedback is best when it’s current, direct, first-hand and uncensored by employees, managers, or salespeople.

Do you have a solid grasp on what your CUSTOMERS think about your company? Do you believe you have detailed enough answers to enable you to make accurate decisions and take action? Imagine your customers are asked the following questions. How exactly would they respond?:

  • How are we doing?
  • Did we meet your expectations? Did we exceed your expectations?
  • If yes, please describe details of what we did right. If no, please describe details of what we didn’t do as well, or could do better.
  • Would you recommend our company to others (why or why not)?
  • Why did you decide to buy our services / products (rather than someone else’s?) and would you do so again?

The information you can gather from customers is really only limited by your imagination. You might seek detailed information about quality, timeliness and/ or cost comparisons with other companies. You could try questions like:

  • Do you have any concerns about the quality of our product/ service? Any suggestions on how we might improve the quality?
  • How was the quality of our partnership / customer interactions during the time we worked together?
  • How do you think we dealt with your requests? Were we timely? Responsive? Do you have any suggestions for us?
  • Do you think our costs were fair and transparent?

Although it’s not too difficult to think of questions you’d like answered, people sometimes are stumped by how they’ll collect such information. Customer feedback is valuable no matter how you collect it, yet it requires a dose of humility and a significant serving of self-confidence. Also, the “how to” method is tied to how much time you can invest, level of detail desired, personnel available to collect and tabulate results and so on. The “how” questions, like the “what” questions above, require serious thought and discussion among the top company leaders.

Gathering customer satisfaction data can range from very personal methods to more ratings-based, anonymous approaches. For example, one personal approach is simply to ask a key customer to sit down with you over coffee and answer your questions face-to-face. Or, what about inviting them to a lunch with your leadership team? Another way to collect information from a variety of customers quickly is to develop a brief questionnaire (with ratings) that you send to customers and ask them to send back. Between these ends of the spectrum, there are myriad other ways to get useful information from the buyers of your services and products.

Every company needs to continuously learn as much as it can about customers to build upon its strengths and thrive. The fundamental questions are: “Do we know what our customers like about what we do? What do they want more of from us? What do they want less of from us (what’s causing them headaches?) and how can we continue to meet and exceed their expectations?” The practice of asking customers directly, rather than relying on what company managers and employees believe customers’ feel satisfied with, is what will change the planning process from “should we take these actions?” to clearly knowing how to take action and lead the way into the future.