My cousin Susan will celebrate a Big Birthday in the next few weeks. The kind they make black mylar balloons for and people send snarky gifts like Geritol. I am throwing her a blow-out party, and relatives from across the country have accepted my invitation to stay the weekend.
Some people have a wonderful relationship with their relatives that is practically effortless. Susan and I share that kind of connection -- closer in some ways than sisters. (I am always on the left in our photos.)
Others have a more laissez-faire approach. They exchange a few phone calls and greeting cards throughout the year, just enough to maintain good relations. Either way, the relative visit is a subtle art that takes skill and practice to master. And lots of pre-planning to ensure that it is a success for all involved.
The same holds true for customer visits.
On-site customer visits and observations are a unique and powerful tool for gathering customer input and building relationships. No other marketing research technique provides quite the same direct, immediate feedback involving the full complexity of customer needs, wants and problems.
Here are a few "best practices" and tips for success:
- Get consensus from internal stakeholders on the specific objectives of the visit. You will likely be faced with a long list of information wants and needs, and many competing objectives. Set priorities to ensure that you get the data you need to effectively drive decision making.
- Assemble a small team (2-3 members) to conduct the visit, one serving as lead interviewer and the others as note takers / observers. Time and space constraints make larger teams unwieldy. Be sure the lead interviewer is skilled in non-directive interviewing (to avoid biasing responses or leading the respondent) and active listening (continuously analyzing the discussion for the larger meaning and implications).
- Coordinate with the sales force. Briefing the sales force on why the visits are being conducted and how the data will be used will go a long way to ensuring a smooth customer recruit.
- Develop a discussion guide to serve as a "road map" of the interview. The sequence of questions should flow logically, with a mix of high level and in-depth discussion. Be sure that the topics are also relevant and interesting to the customer. Pre-test the discussion guide with a few customers to ensure the appropriate language and length.
- Record the visit. Video / audio recording is invaluable to reporting. Always ask permission; some companies forbid recording devices of any kind-- often the cultural norm outside the US. (No worries, you've got a note taker!)
- Debrief after the visit. Take advantage of the excitement and energy of the customer visit to immediately begin sharing ideas and impressions. These can fade or can get lost over time. It is also a great opportunity to incorporate new questions and abandon those that aren't working.
Customer interaction is at its best when it is face-to-face, in their environment. Just like with relatives.