Opening Dialogue: How to Understand Your Customers' Needs

Meeting with customers is frankly a higher priority than anything waiting for Tony DiBenedetto at the office.

“If I can focus on the customer,” DiBenedetto says, “not only have I done a good job listening and bringing that information back to our team and setting the strategy, but I also set an example for everybody else that we should be focused on the customer.”

Understanding customers’ needs is the priority that has helped Tribridge grow, reaching $65 million in revenue in 2009.

Really, the key comes down to thinking like your customer, says DiBenedetto, chairman and CEO of the IT services firm. But it’s not as simple as asking questions once.

To stay engaged with customers Tribridge uses multiple techniques, including training employees to ask effective questions and using a customer council to get a cross section of clients talking about their needs. DiBenedetto spends months on the road meeting clients. And the company uses surveys, which indicate Tribridge has a 98 percent client-retention rate.

Smart Business spoke with DiBenedetto about how to understand your customers.

Try on your customers’ shoes. The key, frankly, is to put yourself in your customers’ shoes. When I think about what a customer is going through, I think about what I would be going through in their shoes.

In other words, I run a company, and we have IT needs, and we have business process needs, and we have strategy needs, so anytime I’m talking to a customer, I put myself in their shoes like I run their business.

When I do that, it makes me just listen differently, ask questions differently. It becomes a ‘we’ thing versus a ‘them’ thing. I really try to put myself in their shoes and ask the questions like, ‘Hey, how are we going to fix that issue?’ or, ‘How are we going to fix that problem?’

When you start getting customers to talk, then you’re really learning because they ultimately have been spending all of their time trying to figure out solutions to problems and your job is to help them solve that problem.

So, if you can listen really well and kind of separate the noise of the problem from the real root cause, and then really figure out what the business benefits would be to solving those problems, then you’re in the head of the customer.

The cornerstone is the listening and the attitude that you’re in their shoes, whether you’re an owner or an executive in their company.

Ask questions that engage customers. When we’re in the beginning of an engagement with a customer or a client, we’re making sure that we have a full understanding of the business strategy, the business model, what the problem is.

The most effective questions are open-ended, as you might expect, and they’re questions that allow a customer to talk about their business.

We have structured questions [that] we have for our discovery, so it’s by industry. We make sure we’re asking questions that are relevant to a particular industry. Then, we ask those questions in a way that allows the executive to open up a dialogue with us that is less structured and closed off.

Open structure is key. Pointed to the fact that they’re related to the industry that they’re in is a second key. Third, being able to ask the question in different ways — multiple ways gives you that ability to get different dimensions to the answer. Sometimes the answer to the question is answered, but you don’t really get the full 3-D view of it, so we tend to ask questions with multiple view points.

Then, we also ask multiple levels within a company. We wind up talking to different levels within a company to get different perspectives.

At a high, very high, level we’re asking questions like, ‘Tell us a little bit about your business strategy.’ Then, ‘Give me the plan for the next three years.’ Then, we might drill down and say, ‘What are some of the obstacles in the way of you achieving those objectives for that strategy?’ It’s that obstacles question that tends to illuminate the problems that they’re having.

‘Tell me the top five things that are keeping you stressed at night or are getting in the way of you being able to accomplish the vision that you’ve laid out.’ Questions like that tend to get people talking.

To the extent that they share those with you, you might go into a whole line of questioning around, ‘Tell me some of the things you’ve tried before to fix that problem.’ That may sound like an odd question. But, inevitably, they’ll tell you. They’ll start talking about it, and they’ll realize the problem was bigger than they said, or there’s another dimension to it because they tell you about solving a problem that is somewhat related but not exactly.

Get out and meet your customers. Without question, one of the keys of growing a business is to focus on the customer. My job in the company is to truly understand the needs of the marketplace. The marketplace is defined by the customers.

I go on the road every year for a couple of months and have very direct one-on-one conversations with customers and ask them very direct questions about our business, about competitors’ businesses. You just learn a tremendous amount about what resonates trust with a customer.

My advice to any CEO, I don’t care what the business is, is to become intimate with the customers. Don’t fool yourself or filter yourself based on surveys or anything else, it has to be direct contact. I don’t know how else you could make solid decisions or be right about anything.

I fancy myself as a good listener and being able to provide a good business that provides products and services, I don’t profess to tell a customer what their needs are. A CEO that’s not spending time with a customer, in essence, is telling a customer that he knows better what their needs are.

The only way you’ll know better is if you are actually talking to the customer themselves.