Message & Media: Get on the Horn
When was the last time you talked with the people who buy your products and pay your salary? And no, email, Facebook and Twitter don't count. I mean a face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversation with those fine folks who keep you in business.
I mention this because I'm about to start one of my favorite non- writing assignments: phone interviews for an insurance client.
Customers are your expert witnesses—people who can provide you with marketing intelligence that results in marketing breakthroughs. I've used customer comments I've obtained through phone interviews as the foundation for writing control-beating headlines, subject lines, letter openers, Web page sidebars and lift letters like the one to the right for the luxury vacation company Maupintour.
In my opinion, nothing replaces the credibility and natural cadence of a customer quote. And for those of you with a tight marketing budget, customer interviews are virtually free. There's no huge research budget required.
Whether you're a sales manager, marketing vice president, product development engineer or a writer, like I am, your customers are a solid source of eye-opening anecdotal insights. They have no hidden agendas, no corporate turf to protect. They simply want the best-they-can-get-that-does-the job-at-the-right-price. And they won't pussyfoot around about what they like and don't like. That's why I enjoy talking with them. Happy or irate, customers tell you how it is.
So, if it's been a few months since you've had a conversation with a customer, it's time to pick up the phone and call. Here are a bevy of tips for how to effectively gather these comments so you make the most of your time (another resource that is often tight for marketers and customers alike). This is the same roadmap I've used for interviewing both B-to-B and B-to-C customers who have purchased everything from propane and business phone systems to health insurance, international travel, Asian skin care products and Kansas City barbecue.
1. Focus groups and surveys have their place, but they don't replace one-to-one customer conversations. While phone interviews with select customers may not be statistically sound, they are extremely valuable.
2. Who should you interview? Ask your salespeople, account service and customer service reps for candidates to call.
3. Before you call, gather background information about the individual you're calling, such as name, title (B-to-B), role he or she played in making the buying decision, length of time as a customer, product/service purchased and reason the person is on your call list (former customer of a competitor, resolved a problem or issue for him, came back after migrating to a competitor, etc.).
4. Talk to new customers who have recently made the buying decision, as well as established customers who have stuck with you through thick and thin. Both have insights that can help you connect with prospects.
5. If you are a freelancer like I am, have someone from the client side introduce you with a pre- interview call. It establishes immediate rapport and streamlines setting up the interviews. If you are hiring a freelancer for this assignment, set up the initial call.
6. Prepare a list of questions—some specific, others open ended. Run these questions by your client for input and approval.
7. During your interviews, listen between the lines for additional questions to ask.
8. Include the date and time you talk with each person as part of your written interview summary. You never know when and how this will come in handy.
9. When you first call to set an interview time, introduce yourself and give a brief reason for the interview (e.g., "I've been working on some new advertising materials for ABC Company and I asked to talk with customers like you to help me understand how people make their buying decisions.") This makes your intentions for the interview clear from the very beginning.
10. Let your interviewee know you are interested in hearing about both positives and negatives. This is a unique opportunity to uncover information that can help improve product development, future marketing plans and customer service.
11. Briefly explain how the comments shared by the interviewee may be used (brochure copy, email campaign, website content, product development, etc). This provides background for why you're asking the questions you're asking and reinforces the value of the customer's opinions and experiences.
12. Reassure interviewees that, before anything they say will be used in print or online, they will have the opportunity to approve it. In my case, I mention that someone from the company I'm representing will contact them for their approval/release.
13. Mention upfront how long the interview will take. I try to keep calls to 15-20 minutes. First, it doesn't seem like a daunting time commitment. Then, if the call runs longer, it's normally because the person wants to share more and is comfortable with the call taking longer. If you end up talking to someone who rambles, you can use the 15-minute time limit as a reason to end or keep the call on track.
14. Thank the person for his or her time and ideas at the beginning AND at the end of the call. Remember, this person is doing you—or the marketer that you're representing—a favor.
15. Go through your notes immediately after the call and highlight the most valuable comments while the individual interview is top of mind. I can tell you from experience, the more calls you make, the more they blend together.
16. If you're doing interviews for advertising purposes, you may want to include a photo of the person with his or her comment. It adds credibility. If you're doing this, make sure to mention at the end of the interview that someone will be in contact to set a time for a photoshoot.
17. Write up each customers' comments for their approval as soon as possible after each interview. If you wait, the comments will lose some of their unique personality.
18. Always follow up with a thank you note. Once again, this reinforces the value of the comments shared. For more information about the importance of personal thank you notes, check out this article I wrote for Target Marketing's sister e-newsletter, Inside Direct Mail Weekly.