By Cheryl Crumb


A few months ago I worked with a large brand-name company who asked, “What’s most important to our customers?”  It’s a great question, and a healthy one that all of us should be asking ourselves, and once the answers are discovered, we should share them with all employees.


There are any number of mistakes that companies make, but one of the biggest is when we make assumptions about our customers.  It’s easy to assume. It takes no effort and it happens whether we want it to or not.  Operating from blind spots causes us to offer customers what we think they want. (We’ve all heard the “ass-u-me” conjugation!)   While we might be right with no harm done, we might also be missing the nuances that customers most value.  Our biggest limitation is “what we don’t know that we don’t know”!


I’ve engaged in Voice of the Customer interviews numerous times for clients, and the overwhelming response is their eagerness to participate.  That’s a positive sign because they too want to contribute to improvement opportunities.  An important ingredient is to ensure that this does not sound like a telemarketing research call.


Setting up Interviews

Here are critical components:


  • Have the supplier company make the initial email contact, professing a genuine desire to improve the business partnering relationship, and credentialize you.
  • Follow up in writing with the company and introduce yourself.
  • Promise confidentiality and anonymity, unless the customer organization wants their voice to be known as well as heard.  Let them know that comments from all participants will be aggregated and specific names will not be used, unless they give authorization.
  • Be realistic about the length of time that the interview will take.  (I ask for 20-30 minutes.)
  • Share in advance some of the questions you plan on asking, so that there will be no surprises about the depth of the conversation.
  • Ask only “high value” and open questions.  Don’t insult or limit customers by wasting their time with closed questions or numerical responses.
  • Capture as much of their comments verbatim, to reduce the possibility of misinterpretation.  Before completing the call, show that you listened by sharing the words and insights that you learned from them.
  • After each call, send an email of appreciation, citing the key messages you heard.


Kinds of Questions to Ask

If you’re looking at improving a relationship, it’s important to ask about both perspectives of the partnership.  Here are some questions that I generally ask:


  • “What are some of the challenges facing you in your role right now?”
  • “What is your leadership team holding you accountable for?”
  • “How have your projects and challenges shifted over time?”
  • “Think about your best supply partner….what did that individual do to earn that distinction?”
  • “If you could design a job description for ‘The Perfect (X Company….and Role)’, what would you want that person to do for you?
  • “What is most important to you when choosing a supply partner?”
  • “Give me an example of something that X Company did that was positively memorable for you.”
  • “Give me an example of something that X Company did, albeit unintentionally, that caused you to question the value of the relationship.”
  • “What would you like X Company to start doing or do more of….stop doing or do less of?”
  • “What is the #1 message that you would like X Company to hear?”


These questions get to the heart of a relationship.  Having a third-party lead the conversation is important because vested company members can easily become defensive.  My experience is that customers become so engaged in answering these provocative questions, that I need to be the one to bring the interview to an end.


Don’t stop with the interview

By engaging customers in an interview, you’re setting (unstated) expectations for improvement.  Therefore, it’s critical that this Collective Voice be shared far and wide, and actions planned to address the gaps.


The number one comment I hear when I talk to my customer’s customers?  “I wish Company X would ask me these same questions!”

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