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Market Research: Take the Time to Stop and Listen

Howard Scott |

PEMBROKE, Mass. — One of the best ways you can find out what the marketplace thinks of your business is to listen to your customers. They can tell what level of quality you churn out, how detail-focused your crew is, how pleasant and knowledgeable your counter staff appears, what makes patrons happy about your offering, and what upsets them.

But obtaining customer input is not always so easy. You can’t set up a panel of six customers and ask them questions. For one thing, they might not be truthful. For another, they probably wouldn’t agree to do it. Nor can you have them fill out a survey form, because most will not put too much thought into the effort. And if your staffers ask every customer their level of satisfaction, they would simply utter, “Fine.” So you must be creative, even ingenious, in obtaining marketing information from your customers.

If you have a problem or if the customer walks out in a huff, call and ask the customer what’s wrong. Listen to their answer. Jot down notes. Never interrupt with a defense, because the purpose of your call is to discover information, not resolve a dispute. If the customer is willing to be honest, he will tell his side of the tale. Armed with this knowledge, you can set up procedures or protocol to ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen again.

If you haven’t heard from a regular customer in a while—say, four months when they typically bring work in once a month—you could call and ask what’s wrong. You might be surprised with the answers.

Bad service. Promises not kept. Counter staffers lacking knowledge.

Fuzzy creases and pleats. Browned collars. Missing buttons.

Up charges too jarring. Clothes wearing out more quickly. Better prices elsewhere.

Of course, this is not an easy call to make. But you are strong enough to take the criticism, because you know you will learn something from it.

Listen for conversations in your shop. Your counter staffer is helping a customer while two other customers waiting in line talk about your service. You are on the other side of the divider, so no one sees you. Listen in. One says, “I never bring my shirts here. They just don’t get them white enough.” Your impulse may be to barge in on the conversation and explain that you can get the shirts as white as they want by adding an additive, which is a special request. But resist this urge.

Be a careful listener. Take note of what is said about your service—write down the key points—and follow up later. For instance, if I heard such a comment, I might collect five shirts from five different dry cleaners—this will take some work—and compare results. Ask your staffers for their opinion. Possibly the customer was right, and your shirts are not as bright as others are. Take corrective action. That might mean getting a new shirt vendor if you don’t do them yourself.

As far as the woman who said she never takes shirts to your place, call her and explain that you’re now doing shirts differently; they are bright and white. Give her an incentive—you will do five shirts for half price or a couple for free so she can try out this new process. In this way, you just might get the customer to try your shirt service and win more of her business.

The trick of overhearing conversations is invisibility. Make yourself inscrutable, undetectable. If you wore a disguise, and met up with a few customers, you could achieve invisibility. But that is not something you will do. So be alive to the possibility that you might catch snippets of conversation and become all ears when it occurs.

Still another possibility is to speak to another dry cleaner’s customers. One suggestion is to approach an individual as they leave a dry cleaner, announce that you are new in town, and ask if this cleaner does a good job. Or ask if there is a better cleaner in town. You might receive an answer like, “There’s ABC (your company)—they’re top grade, but they charge an arm and a leg.” If you hear this from a half-dozen customers, then you know that that is the market perception. You might elect to do something about it. If I were in your place, I would begin offering weekly deals to win a share of the market that appreciates your quality but doesn’t want to pay high prices. This practice is called market segmentation.

Take it a step further. Hire someone to stand around your store and ask customers coming out the same question. The script goes, “I’m new in town, and I’m wondering about your opinion of this dry cleaner. My appearance is important to me.” The consumer spy receives an answer, then when the person is gone, records pertinent comments. After four or five hours, the consumer spy should have a few dozen quotes, which will be revelatory.

Sit down with the quotes and use them to paint a true picture of what the market thinks of you. Then make a plan of action. The genius here is two parts: You’re able to put together an accurate picture of how your business is perceived, then come up with strategies to expand your market acceptance.

The person you hire doesn’t have to be a professional marketer. He or she could be a friend or neighbor who has done some interviewing before, or even a college marketing student willing to accept the challenge. Pay the person for their effort—$50 or $100 would do. This approach will give you far better results than hiring a market research company to send out a survey, and for much less cost.

Finally, whenever you are out and about around town—at a restaurant, in church, at the drugstore—listen to those around you talk about the businesses they frequent. Pay attention, as if you were facing a firing squad.

Become a good listener. It will put money in your pockets.

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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