A couple of years ago, I ran two marketing research projects that took me all over the country doing focus groups. Of the two projects, one involved talking to contractors about a potential new product. The other project involved talking to homeowners about their water systems and options that were currently available. We had to keep them separate which meant we couldn’t just run one meeting in each city, but we did run both sessions back-to-back in the same room in order to minimize our expense.

We accomplished our mission, but we also found an unexpected benefit from this proximity: we got a big lesson on perspective.

Throughout our conversations with contractors, we heard a lot about how these guys do business, what (they think) their customers think, and why they do things they way they do. In our conversations with homeowners, we learned a lot about what they know, more about what they don’t know, and what they really want. When we compared those different conversations, we found that contractors didn’t always know their customers as well as they thought they did. In fact in some cases, they were at complete odds with one another. We had stumbled upon a gulf wider than the Grand Canyon.

How could that be? There we were, among a group of successful professional contractors, and they didn’t achieve success by accident. These were smart guys.

I don’t think this scenario is uncommon or unique to that industry. Often in the process of successfully building a business, we establish routines. We learn what people want, how to make that happen, and how to apply it across the board. We develop a formula and we use it. It works.

But things change. Mindsets shift, new products become available, economic conditions fluctuate. Unless those changes are dramatic enough to get our full attention, we often forget to periodically take the pulse of our customers so that we can adjust our formulas. We just keep doing what we do.

To really stay on top of the game, we need to run a feedback loop. We need to keep having conversations with our customers, learning from them at every encounter. To keep our formulas for success fresh and relevant, we need to run a feedback loop and continually adjust. If we don’t, eventually we’ll find a huge gulf between our customers and us–and it’s usually easier for them to find another service provider than to bridge the Grand Canyon.

(Originally submitted in September 2011 as a guest post for Franklin in the Field.)

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