his article by VerticalResponse CEO and founder Janine Popick originally appeared on Inc.com.

At VerticalResponse, we don’t get a lot of face-to-face time with our small business and non-profit customers. I
hate that. Since we’re an online marketing solution, we really only get ear-to-ear or chat-to-chat (online) with them, not in person. With over 100,000 customers, it’s not easy and quite expensive to do big live events when you’re only charging them $10 a month to use your service.

Right now we are building some really interesting tools that will definitely change the way our customers use and think of VerticalResponse. I’ve got a pretty good gut feeling when it comes to features our customers need, because I run a small business myself. But you can’t always rely on just gut, especially when you’re spending a nice chunk of money on what you’re building.

A few weeks ago, I decided that it was time to reach out and get a check on that “gut feel.”

So we invited 15 or so of our customers to our offices, paid them $300 for the day, fed them and asked them questions about their business and ours. It was an amazing experience for both our team as well as for them. They got to meet other people experiencing the same things in totally different industries, and we got to hear in-depth what makes them tick.

We started off by asking them to introduce themselves, their businesses and one interesting thing about themselves. It was a great ice breaker! We had a businesswoman who teaches hula dancing on the side and an animator who does tequila tastings! A lot of fun.

We then launched into what we were hoping to get out of them. We asked a ton of questions, including:

  1. What was important to them in their businesses?
  2. What are all the ways they communicated to their customers?
  3. What were their pain points?
  4. How did they spend money on customer interaction?
  5. What did they like and hate about our online marketing tools?

Over the course of two hours, we got an earful. (We had several product development employees taking copious notes in the back of the room, of course.) This is where we learn over and over what the top 10 percent of the issues are with our business that we can attack!

We then showed them what was important to us in our business, and what we’re planning for the future to get a sense of how they felt about the changes. We pulled up screenshots of our future product and gave them the ability to give us input on what they thought about what they were viewing. Fortunately, 90 percent of their feedback had already been anticipated by our product team, so we are already building them in. Phew, we had hoped they’d say that!

The takeaway here: Although they take a bit of money, time and resources, meeting with your customers from time to time is super important, especially if you do business online. It’s easy for an online company to drift away from the “human” aspect of serving its customers. Having a discussion about what works, what doesn’t and what they want from you is essential to making sure your business is on the right track.

For us, now we can go off and make sure that we’re addressing exactly what our customers need. And it only cost us some nice food and a few thousand bucks. I know they’re going to be happy with what we’re building, and that’s all that matters to us.

How close are you with what your customers need?

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