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Ask, Don't Tell

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For your marketing campaigns to work, you must use any and all the knowledge you have of the customer to start the dialogue and then commit to two-way communication going forward. Not once a quarter in a discreet direct mail package. But continually, throughout the year and throughout your relationship with each and every customer.

Focus Groups
Budget permitting, focus groups should be scheduled continually — not just when a specific campaign is being launched. If a conversation is to evolve, your customers' opinions, feelings and preferences should be gauged frequently and cumulatively.

Internal Focus Groups
Who within your organization is closest to the customer?Is it sales or customer service?Schedule frequent sessions in which these internal teams can share their learning with people who are further removed from the customer. Think of the value this "insider information" can offer R&D, marketing or manufacturing.

Surveys
Commit to surveying your customers on a regular basis. Specific timing depends on the nature of your product or service -- and the profile of your customer. But, plan to survey infrequently enough that response stays high but often enough to course correct if you learn that your overall conversation is off-track. People appreciate the opportunity to give their input. And, in many cases, a straightforward survey will outpull a higher cost package with graphics and clever copy.

Opinions
Ask for customer opinions on everything from your marketing materials, customer service and operations, to the product itself. Again, people want to be heard. Then, be sure to acknowledge their contribution and, whenever appropriate, act upon it.

Suggestion Boxes
In this day of email and voicemail and other technology, many companies still post suggestion boxes in lunchrooms and common areas. And, employees still stuff those boxes with everything from ideas for the holiday party to mission-critical business improvements. These boxes are still popular precisely because they are so low-tech. It's a no-brainer — there's no commitment, no paper trail. Set up the same kind of device on your Web site or through other media. Don't insist that customers "register" or tell you who they are. Just give them a no-strings-attached way to talk to you.

Telemarketing
As we've mentioned earlier, telemarketing as an industry and a communications method has had some very bad press lately. But, outbound telemarketing is still an effective and, relatively cost-efficient, way to meet your customers one-on-one. Try using telemarketing to get information and feedback from current customers rather than as a sales tool. Following up after a purchase to ensure that the customer is satisfied gives you a way to get some valuable learning while reinforcing the customer's value to your organization.

Package inserts
Many companies spend a large sum on packing and shipping their products. Take advantage of those set costs for marketing. Never send a product out to a customer without asking for their opinion, feedback and suggestions.

Statement Stuffers
Similarly, if you're in a business that sends periodic bills or statements, make the most of all the postage you're paying for. A quick survey or simple reply card can be created and inserted for pennies.

The marketing organization that boasts that it received a 20% response to a customer service survey is missing the point. Getting input is not the goal. Your mission is to use any and all input you receive to direct your marketing communications. The option to talk to you — to — must be present at every customer touchpoint. Direct marketing should always be a two-way street.

Don't tell. Ask.


Excerpted from The New Marketing Conversation, by Donna Baier-Stein and (Queen B) Alexandra MacAaron.



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