Customer Feedback That Delivers “Ah-ha” Moments

  • Ann Amati
  • Principal
  • Deliberate Strategies Consulting

The first thing that comes to mind when most people think “customer feedback” is “customer survey.” While a check-box survey will give you data, it’s not the right approach for a company that manages only a few (or a few dozen) important relationships per year.

Check-box surveys are designed to produce findings that are easy to analyze. Unfortunately, people hate surveys. It can happen that the customers with the most useful insights aren’t the ones who’ll complete a check-box survey.

For most construction-related companies, a few customers determine how successful your company will be this year. Therefore, it’s much smarter to reach out to important customers one-on-one. You want to learn how they view you and your competitive landscape. You also want to know what their current business priorities are.

To make this kind of initiative more successful, don’t reach out to everyone all at once and ask everyone the same set of questions. Instead narrow your scope:

  • decide what you want to know,
  • be clear about why you want to know it, and
  • determine who the best contacts are to help you amass information you can use.

Even when the focus is narrow, planning a series of customer feedback interviews can quickly become overwhelming. Members of the senior team might not find the time to complete the initiative. And if you assign the project to someone who is too junior, your customers might not fully engage. When this kind of project is executed internally, it’s best to approach it in small bites. However, when time is of the essence, you can outsource this kind of project to someone you trust with your customers.

What can you expect to learn? Let’s look at what a general contractor, a sub and a supplier learned from their customers.

A general Rafn reached out to three customer groups to amass three distinct bodies of knowledge.

  • Loyal customers are experts at what’s so great about Rafn. They were able to help Rafn articulate the company’s competitive advantages. They also offered feedback about Rafn’s people and operations.
  • Dormant customers know why they haven’t considered Rafn in recent years. They addressed nuanced subjects such as competitiveness and “match.”
  • Perennial prospects (developers Rafn calls “wish list” customers) know—but haven’t yet chosen—Rafn. Each spelled out what Rafn will have to do to displace more familiar GCs.

This could easily have been three initiatives.

A sub In another example, a subcontractor was looking ahead to developing a five-year strategic plan. The ownership team knew it would be wise to let customer opinions influence their priorities. What they wanted was an assessment of how they were regarded by the general contractors and owners who represented 40% of their prior year’s revenue. Were the relationships secure? What was the lingering impact of the occasional odd incident? Were customers in favor of changes the sub was considering?

The sub learned about

  • their competitiveness in the selection process,
  • the strengths and weaknesses of their job-site performance, and
  • how partner-oriented their business practices were.

They were pleasantly surprised to learn what past (puzzling) incidents were really about. More importantly, they rebuilt dormant relationships and won projects they otherwise wouldn’t have been invited to bid.

A supplier The final example spotlights an out-of-state facility owned by a local materials supplier. In the midst of a construction boom, the satellite facility was losing share to its competitors. Nobody could figure out why.

Similar to the Rafn project, the supplier “debriefed”

  • loyal customers,
  • customers who bought from multiple suppliers, and
  • prospects who called for quotes but never bought (or who had last bought years ago).

The owner learned how customers viewed his salespeople. He also learned about a subtle change in that location’s competitive landscape. Customer interviews told him where the gaps were that cost him business and where the added value was that kept loyal customers loyal.

Conclusion In none of these cases would a survey have delivered the ‘ah-ha’ moments that were turning points for these firms because surveys are rigid. Further, on a scale from 1 to 10, “4” doesn’t tell you what to do. Conversational interviews are fluid. One benefit is customers introduce topics you wouldn’t have known to include.

Rather than opt for a check-box survey because it’s efficient and inexpensive, recognize that insightful guidance from a handful of customers can help you take action that helps narrow the gap between your current revenues and your company’s full revenue potential.

When it comes to what customers are thinking, it’s better to know than to not know. And the way to know is to ask.

You can reach me with questions or comments at (206) 933-6067 or My Contact page includes a download link to “Surviving the Next Downturn: Tips for Subcontractors.”

Ann Amati is the founder of Deliberate Strategies Consulting in Seattle. She has more than 20 years' experience conducting deep-dive customer interviews to uncover where a contractor or supplier needs to make changes to become or remain competitive.

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