Talking to customers was important before COVID-19. It’s even more important, now: New Heights’ 2020 Middle Market Survey

Key takeaways from New Heights’ 2020 Middle Market Survey on customer listening activities:

  • 93% of respondents felt that active customer listening was highly important. Most companies (62%) have a dedicated program for it.
  • 56% of respondents felt that the COVID-19 crisis makes customer listening more important. Only 3% felt COVID-19 makes it less important.
  • Less than 30% of respondents feel they have a “very good” understanding of customer feedback.
  • The key to successful customer listening is asking the right questions.
  • Companies that use a 3rd party consultant for active customer listening programs are more satisfied than those who don’t.
  • The most important skill of a 3rd party consultant is knowing the right questions to ask and how to ask them.

What we did:

Active customer listening is defined as the process of focusing “on hearing the words the customer is speaking, interpreting what these words mean, and responding in a positive manner that demonstrates (1) you understand what the customer is saying, and (2) you consider it to be important” (Clark, 2003).

Customer listening activities are common features of larger corporate marketing programs. However, less is known about how middle-market companies approach these practices. What are the goals, challenges, and opportunities faced by mid-sized companies when it comes to getting customer feedback?

To answer these questions, New Heights surveyed 175 professionals representing mid-sized companies during the Spring of 2020. Respondents included manufacturers, distributors, and service providers sampled from across the continental US. We conducted follow-up interviews with a sub-sample of participants to provide context and color for the data.

What we found:

Respondents felt that customer listening is vital to building enduring relationships with them.

93% of respondents rated the importance of customer listening 4/5 or 5/5. They cited strengthening customer relationships as the reason why. The idea of building lasting relationships with customers emerged as a key theme throughout the study. One respondent described these activities as a “health check” for the quality of business connections, where even negative feedback can indicate stronger relationships.

The main benefit of strong relationships is trust. “When we have a strong customer relationship, it means that they want to come to us with questions,” said one respondent. “It means they know we are people that can help them get what they need, even if they are in the middle of a learning curve themselves. It means that there is trust.”

The COVID-19 outbreak has increased opportunities for customer listening.

Despite the slowdown in business activity due to the pandemic, respondents described ongoing communication with customers. “Honestly, it’s been great,” commented a respondent in the manufacturing sector.  “We’re seeing opportunities instead of obstacles. And the reason is people are more apt to be talkative. They want to be engaged about this experience. We found ourselves able to capitalize more on the relationship building side, because they feel like they know us better.” Others described feelings of intimacy from videoconferencing with customers in their homes.

Less than 30% of respondents felt they have a “very good” understanding of customer feedback.

Even with added opportunities for communication presented by COVID-19, many respondents expressed frustration with understanding customers’ evaluations of their performance. “Sometimes, people don’t know what messages they’re getting (from customers),” remarked one respondent. Another noted, “If you don’t have a good way to understand what they are saying then the feedback is basically useless.”

However, the data suggests that firms with active customer listening programs were much more likely to understand that feedback—almost three-times more likely, in fact.

About a quarter of middle market firms surveyed (26%) turn to outside consultants for their customer listening activities.

Consultants are used mostly for web surveys and other specialized techniques where outside expertise is needed for best results. That expertise centers on knowing the right questions to ask in order to elicit the most relevant responses. “What we find is that customers will keep things hidden unless you know exactly what specific questions to ask them,” a respondent said. “You can run in circles wondering what questions to ask.” “You have to remove opportunities for misunderstanding,” said another.

The full report is available as a free download, here.

New Heights knows the right questions to ask—and how to ask them. Please don’t hesitate to contact us to learn more about our voice-of-the-customer programs and services.

William Weaver

William Weaver is Senior Consultant with New Heights Research.