'What Keeps You Effective?' The Best Questions for Your Customers

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The Washington Post just shuttered their 16-year-old metro tabloid Express, putting this headline on the final edition: "Hope you enjoy your stinkin' phones." As a longtime print subscriber, I get the sentiment. But at the same time, I don't know if the Post thought this one out.

One of our keynotes at the Nov. 11-13 Business Information & Media Summit (BIMS) (early-bird deadline is Sept. 20!), Mario Garcia of Columbia University, has said that "If I had to decide today on one platform to design for, with all the disruptions, it would be the phone." And yet when I go to the Post website on my phone, it's not easy to log on. It keeps telling me I need to subscribe.

They are definitely not listening to their audience, who would probably tell them we're okay without the Express and the sarcasm, and logging in for subscribers—especially print—should be a one-click affair.

Elizabeth Petersen, product director, professional development, for Simplify Compliance, who will also be speaking at BIMS, emphasizes the value of listening to your customers and making it a part of your processes.

"Customer listening [should happen] not only at the start of the product but on an ongoing basis," Petersen said, "and frankly that's an area where we fall down sometimes. We had launched a new association, and we were really proud of ourselves because people liked it a lot at first. But nine months in, we did our first focus group—which was an absolute mistake; this should be happening once a month. We were asking people questions, and we were shocked to find out that people were only aware of about 10% of their benefits.

"We made assumptions and stopped listening to our customers, so I think that has to be a baked-in process, ongoing and then all the customer touchpoints you have—whether it's sales, customer service, marketing, product—everyone's coming together and having open and honest conversations frequently."

In a presentation at SIPA 2019 in June, National Journal president Kevin Turpin said that "we spent a year with our customers, asking them a set of questions over and over. The most important one was, 'What keeps you effective?'

"When businesses are trying to recreate themselves and change, they spend too much time inside, in strategy meetings, batting around ideas that they think will work. We don't spend enough time going around. How are [our customers'] jobs changing? What are they thinking about? What are they investing in this year? This will give you solutions."

National Journal ended up switching from subscriber-based to membership-based. "That was a decision we made because we thought there would be more loyalty that we'd get from our clients, especially at a time when competitors were coming into our market," Turpin said. "They wouldn't feel like they'd be getting nickeled and dimed anytime they added a user."

Chemical Watch also recently switched from a subscription to a membership model. (Richard Butterworth, commercial director, and Julian Rose, director and co-founder, will also be at BIMS to present a Case Study: How CW's Online Diagnostic Tool is Deepening Customer Understanding, Informing Content Creation, and More.)

"It was a long time coming; it's a big change," Danielle Suttle, Chemical Watch's content marketing manager, told me a few months ago from Bath, England. "We've put a lot of customer research into this; it's not just a case of a new website. A great deal of effort has to go into to making clear what it means for our customers. There's a brand new analyst team behind the scenes, we're expanding coverage. We'll be covering Latin America now and other emerging markets.

"This was not a quick decision," she continued. "It came after 12 months of looking at how Chemical Watch could best meet the needs of its customers in the long term. Feedback was gathered from customers representing sectors from electronics and IT to retail, food packaging and cosmetics." What they learned was that the increasing complexity of global regulatory regimes is driving a need for reliable intelligence and expert insight.

"We did a big survey of users and members of our community who attend conferences, at the end of 2017," Suttle said. "That was a catalyst for everything we changed."

Stinkin' phones or not, listening should be the key.

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…