By Josh Patrick
NEW YORK (AdviceIQ) -- Your business sits on a trove of information to improve operations and profit: your customers' opinions. Here's how to gather them.
I used a customer advisory board in every business I owned. The only way to get quality feedback about your company and your service is to ask your customers.
Asking one-on-one makes a good start, but asking a group of customers is magic. The real value to you of such a customer advisory board? The follow-up question that you need to ask to figure out how to implement their thoughts.
Don't do surveys. A waste of time: You ask one question and get one answer.
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A survey can probably make you feel good as your customers choose nice things to say to you about you. Yet I never saw a survey that came up with solid, actionable items a company benefited from. Go right to an advisory board.
Synergy in a group. I often hear business owners say, "I don't need an advisory board. I talk with my customers all the time." If you run a great business, you should talk to your customers. If you don't talk to them, start.
Bring customers together to talk to each other, too. Members getting energy from each other strengthens a board's value to you. Ideas build on each other and you find suggestions to help you improve your company significantly -- if you take action on the suggestions.
Meet regularly. The more the members of your advisory board meet, the better they know each other. The better your advisory board knows each other, the more comfortable they become. Their conversation -- specifically, opinions about your business -- becomes more honest.
Have your board meet at least twice per year. You'll find that board members look forward to the meeting: Customers love making their suppliers of goods and services better. If you become better, your customers benefit.
You also want at least one curmudgeon on your board. Such a member often starts a worthwhile conversation about a real issue that your company needs to address but no one wants to mention first.
Prepare for your meetings. When you prepare properly, you show respect for busy board members. When you throw something together, board members who have lots of activities competing for their attention get the message you don't think the meeting is important, and the good members drop out.
Don't waste the time of your best customers, whose honest and enthusiastic feedback you want.
Keep your board in the loop. Provide members with a report of what happened at the meeting. Every eight weeks or so send a short update about what you're working on and changes your company made -- especially changes based on their suggestions.
Small experiments produce the best long-term results, and you can easily report to your board how your small experiments turn out.
Make sure conversations and suggestions come from members' points of view. This is the most important part of advisory boards.
If board members suggest an idea, ask if they would spend money on their own idea. If yes, take their point. If they say no but other people might want the suggestion, discount what they said.
Only statements from members who use a service of your company are valid. Those are the ones I drill with follow-up questions, which bring the nuggets of customer wisdom you look for.-- By Josh Patrick, CFP, founding principal of Stage 2 Planning Partners in South Burlington, Vt. He contributes to the New York Times' "You're the Boss" blog and works with owners of privately held businesses helping them create business and personal value. You can learn more about his objective review process at his website.
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