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Listen To Your Customers

Want to know what your customers are thinking? Just ask.

You don't need to spend thousands of dollars on focus group research to determine what your customers want. Here are some inexpensive ways to dig deep into your customers' psyches-without digging into your own pockets-for invaluable feedback.

Postcards. Less costly to prepare than other direct-mail efforts, postcards can be sent out overnight and never have to overcome the obstacle of getting "opened." This is also a great way to gauge response to limited-time offers, certain services or periodic discounts.

Customer comment cards. An obvious way to find out whether a client is happy after you've completed a project for them is to ask. The easiest way to do this, and keep good records, is to create a written questionnaire that asks pointed questions about what you did well and what you might have done differently. We're not talking about a Census form here. Keep it brief: Was the project completed on time? Was it completed within the agreed upon budget? Was the customer kept abreast of project progress? Would the customer recommend you to others?

Web site surveys. Online questionnaires are a great way to connect with your customers and to conduct online satisfaction surveys and market research. You can also change content and questions quickly and don't have to worry about printing or postage costs. Another great way to generate feedback is to always include your e-mail address on the questionnaire, and invite visitors to e-mail their comments directly to you.

Online forums. You can get a lot of marketing mileage by getting involved in the online forums or electronic bulletin boards offered by major ISPs and sites like Yahoo! Clubs and Usenet.com. These specialized forums attract thousands of users daily, and you can usually find a large audience. Make it a point to visit relevant forums regularly, and when you spot a user question that relates to your expertise, post a helpful reply. Be sure to "lurk" a bit first to find out if users frown on business pitches. If not, make it a point to plug your business's services or products and often you'll find users come to your site ready to buy. If business pitches are seen as spam, just post helpful advice and include your URL in your signature.

E-mail. If you don't have a Web site or want to double or triple your efforts online, brief, periodic e-mail check-ins are an easy way to ask questions and create a little dialogue with your customers. Prudence is the operative word here. Don't e-mail them every day and don't expect them to read anything too lengthy because you'll only end up deleted.

All these tools will add to your professionalism-especially if you take the comments to heart.

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