Small business owners are not always honest with themselves regarding the weaknesses within their business that could be exploited by a competitor. Sometimes they think their product/service is much better than it is perceived to be by their prospects. To survive, you need to know where you are weak in relation to your competitors. Then you can develop a plan to address these issues and bring your business back to the expected levels of performance. Ignoring weaknesses in your business processes by burying your head in the sand is not a good idea.
Of course, as well as weaknesses you may also have some significant advantages over your competition. It pays to know what these are so you can emphasise them to future prospects.
There are two good sources of such feedback. You should tap into both of them to learn how to improve your performance and increase your sales.
The first source is made up of those prospects who ultimately didn’t buy from you and decided one of your competitors was offering better value for money. View these as your “list of lost prospects”. You need to learn why you didn’t win each of these sales and identify what you could have done differently to have improved your chances. Using this information, you should update the appropriate processes within your business to improve your chances of winning future sales.
If you identified that an improvement was needed in your product line, you can escalate this to your product developers to ensure it is included (if at all possible) in the next product release. If there is any delay in updating your product, it will give your competitors the opportunity to exploit this product weakness in the weeks and months ahead. Where possible, you should devise some sort of “work-around” to make it harder for your competitors to capitalise on the situation.
It isn’t always easy to get this level of feedback from your ex-prospects as they will want to spend all their time with their chosen supplier and prepare for delivery of their purchase. However, provided you have developed a good relationship with the prospect and have responded professionally to the disappointing news of losing the sale, you should be able to engage sufficiently to gather the required feedback. It’s all down to the relationship you develop during the sales cycle and how you respond to the loss of the sale.
The second source of reliable feedback is your client list. Each client can give you feedback on why they selected you as their supplier and what made you more attractive than your competitors. With luck (and by asking the right questions) you should also collect some useful intelligence about your competitors’ offerings.
There are a number of ways to tap into your clients’ experiences and learn how you can improve your sales performance. The best three for me have been face-to-face discussions, telephone conversations and feedback survey forms.
Which will work best for your business depends on the nature of your business and how many clients you need to contact. If you have relatively low-cost products, you may have too many clients to contemplate meeting them all individually to gather the necessary feedback.
I have found that using feedback surveys gives a nice balance. Unlike asking questions face-to-face or via the telephone, you don’t put your client “on the spot”. They can take their time to compose the answer to your questions. This, in my view, makes the feedback the most valuable. You are getting a considered response.
Furthermore, feedback forms can be completed at the client’s convenience, so there is no disruption to their daily schedule. They are also time efficient from your perspective and the information you gain can be studied and analysed from a variety of angles over extended time periods.
Although it is worth thinking about the many different ways you can benefit from using information gathered by feedback surveys to improve your future performance, the most important consideration is getting a high response rate. A survey that few people complete is a waste of time.
The secret behind getting feedback surveys completed and returned is making them relatively short with questions that are easy to answer. You are looking for specific feedback to help you improve your sales performance, so you need to collect expansive answers. Asking for a score from 1 to 5 on how well you performed isn’t giving you anything tangible to work on. You can improve your response rates with the offer of a reward, such as an entry into a prize draw to win a valuable item.
Surveys should contain just a few questions which encourage expansive answers. Whenever you get a particularly interesting piece of information, you can follow up with a telephone call or face-to-face meeting.
If you decide to use feedback surveys to learn lessons from your clients, try to devise a series of surveys. You should send the first one while the client’s buying experience is still fresh in their mind. This should probably be within 6 weeks of them buying from you. The next survey should be 6 months later and focus more on their experiences of installing (if appropriate) and using their purchase. After that, consider running 2 surveys per year, each with a slightly different focus.
In fact, much of this can be automated so that every new client you secure gets asked to participate in a survey 6 weeks after they join you, then at their 6-month anniversary of buying from you. After that, an automated 6-monthly cycle can commence.
In this way, all clients respond to the same survey after they have been your client for 6, 12, 18 months etc even though they signed up at different times. This is ideal if you are comparing the results of current clients completing, say, their 6 month survey with those of a few years ago.
- Seek feedback from prospects who ultimately decide to buy from one of your competitors. Find out what you did wrong, what you did right and what you could have done better.
- Collect feedback from your clients every 6 months and focus on a different aspect of your business each time. Encourage criticism because you need this to improve. You might get a good feeling from clients saying they are satisfied and become complacent about making continuous improvements to your business.
- When you do receive feedback regarding ways to improve your products/services, commit to act on it.