How to Talk to Customers About Your Business’s Future

Man sitting at desk with laptop, writing in a notebook with a pen

Just one year ago, parents were enrolling their kids in jam-packed summer programs, including the one at Peter’s* youth rock climbing gym. But this year, most summer programs are canceled due to COVID-19.

Unfortunately for Peter, camp fees create the bulk of his business’s revenue. And between government restrictions and hesitant parents, his gym has taken a major financial hit.

“There’s a lot that’s unknown. I’m concerned that parents won’t be comfortable sending their kids back for birthday parties and camps,” he said.

But instead of worrying, Peter decided to be proactive and figure out exactly what his customers needed to see from him in order to feel safe at his gym. He also wanted to learn what parents need to feel comfortable in a “new normal.”

That’s why he decided to send out a customer survey.

Why a Customer Survey Can Help Your Business Adapt to a Post-COVID-19 World

For small business owners like Peter, there’s still hope. He believes that with the right communication strategy, he can guide his customers through the changes, safely and reassuringly.

If you’re nervous about customer priorities after COVID-19, a customer survey can help you get to the heart of what customers need to see to feel safe doing business with you. A survey — whether done by email, over the phone, or on Zoom — can give you the actionable insight you need to make sure your business not only survives, but thrives, in a post-pandemic world.

After all, you’re finding out what your customers need from you directly from the source!

Take a look at our step-by-step guide on how to survey your customers so you can set your business up for success during these uncertain times.

Customer Feelings and Methods of Measurement

Once you’ve made the decision to go to your customers and figure out where their heads are, don’t overthink it.

For Peter, this may mean tailoring his gym’s offerings to ensure that his customers feel safe. This may include doing extra cleaning, offering smaller camp sizes, and hosting fewer events.

One thing is for sure, Peter knows he needs to partner with customers to survive the economic downturn. If he can get creative and prioritize their needs, along with government guidelines, he has a chance of getting people back in the door.

Some business owners may find themselves at a push-pull when it comes to this step in the process. “Should I wait until X to do Y?”

The best way to get the ball rolling is to reach out to your customers and ask them a question (or a few — we’ll get to that later).

Stick to What You Know

You don’t need to hire a skywriter just yet. Chances are, you’ve probably communicated with your customers mostly by phone or in person, and it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them about they’re thoughts on things that way, too.

Relying on phone or email conversations with customers is a great way to stay in touch and ask questions. If you’re unable to survey customers in person, there’s also the option of asking them over video (e.g., FaceTime or Zoom).

This may seem a bit too much, but there’s something to be said for being able to see a customer’s facial expressions and read their body language.

Ask More Than One Question

Your customers’ time is valuable, so you want to make sure you get as much out of a conversation with them as possible. A good way to capitalize on time is to have a sequence of questions ready.

If you communicate with your customers via email, you can send the questions in a survey form. There are different survey options available, such as Survey Monkey or Google Forms that are easy to set up, send out, and collect info from.

If you prefer to talk to your customers in person or via phone or video, don’t worry — you also can check their thoughts on the subjects you want to ask them about. Sure, you may not be able to present the survey to them in a form, but you can still ask the questions in the same order.

Pay Attention to How You’re Asking

Of course, how a customer responds to your questions depends on how you ask them. Even Harvard Business School says that, “People are more forthcoming when you ask questions in a casual way, rather than in a buttoned-up, official tone.”

Beyond keeping your tone personable and casual, how can you form your questions so that customers will be more likely to open up? Especially if you’re asking about a change in how you do business or how your business is received by others, you want to do all you can to ensure honest answers.

Mirror Language

Mirroring your customers’ language is exactly what it sounds like. Similarly to how a mirror reflects your image, using conversation to reflect the tone the customer is using back to them can be helpful when you’re trying to start a conversation.

For example, if your customers are in a good mood and use phrases like “ha-ha” or exclamation points (!) in an email, feel free to write a response that sounds equally expressive.

On the other hand, if you’re talking to a customer on the phone and the tone sounds short and upset, don’t respond in a way that’s overly peppy. Instead, respond in a concise, matter-of-fact way.

Ask Open Ended Questions— Why They Help

Sometimes we’ll hear feedback from small business owners that they do in fact talk to their customers, but they don’t seem to get any actionable responses.

Think back to the last survey you took.

Odds are, if you didn’t spend much time on the questions, it was because they required only “Yes” or “No” answers.

Giving your customers answers to select, or asking a question with only a “yes/no” answer, is almost like giving them the answer yourself. If you give them an open-ended question, however, you open up the possibility of them telling you what they think.

Here are a couple examples of questions written as “yes/no”, versus open-ended:

Yes/No: Was our business’s service satisfactory for you? Open-ended: What about our business’s service was satisfactory (or not) for you?

Yes/No: Next time, will you choose to buy our product again? Open-ended: What will go into your decision the next time you need to buy a product like this one?

Be clear, concise, and have purpose

When your customers take the time to answer your questions, whether it’s via phone, email, or in person, they’re taking the time to help you improve your business. It’s best to be considerate of their time and make sure that each question you ask is clearly stated and easy to understand.

Similarly, each question you ask should be tied to a business goal. For example, if you ask about their use of a product that you suspect won’t be a big part of your inventory next season, that wouldn’t be a wise use of their time.

Here are some examples of clear (and open-ended) questions that get right to the point:

  • How often are you using our services/products?
  • What motivated you to work with us instead of another company?
  • How has COVID-19 changed your feelings about working with us?
  • What precautions would help you feel more comfortable working with us again in the future?
  • What factors (if any) make you hesitant to use our services that you were using before the pandemic?

Use Past Reviews to Gauge Survey Results or Inform Questions

If it’s your first time doing a customer survey, coming to a conclusion about how successful it is can be difficult. Of course, getting answers is helpful, but if you can’t gauge the difference in answers to a previous survey, you also can look to past customer reviews.

Past reviews your customers have provided, regardless of whether or not they’re anonymous, can do a lot to help with your surveys. You can use previous reviews to note how the larger consensus about a product or service may (or may not have) changed.

If reading through reviews, you notice common themes, then you can choose to use that feedback to inform your survey questions.

For example, if several customers commented on your response time to project inquiries, then consider adding a question about that on your survey.

Reaching Out Is the First Step

If you’re a business owner like Peter, then there are a lot of uncertainties ahead for you, and just owning a business is stressful enough. But luckily, most customers want us to succeed. After all, if it weren’t for us, who would provide their products and services?

In order to get a pulse on how your customers will receive change, the first step is reaching out and asking a question. Maybe the phone is your tool of choice here, or maybe you prefer email.

Whatever way you choose to get in touch, having an open dialogue with your customers is certain to give you insight on how to move forward with your business during these uncertain times.

Emily Thompson, Founder of EST Creative, co-authored this article.

Allison Grinberg-Funes

I’ve told stories since I learned to talk and written since I could hold a pen. As a small business owner myself – I’m a freelance writer and yoga teacher – I love contributing to the entrepreneurship community in different ways (including writing for Simply Business!). When I’m not drafting articles for SB, I can be found on my yoga mat, perusing an indie bookstore, and writing (with my cat nearby of course).

Allison writes on a number of topics such as small business leadership, business structures, and employee training.