How to Really Listen to Your Customers

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Branding Strategist, Learning from Mistakes, Helping Others Not Make the Same Ones
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This story appears in the January 2013 issue of . Subscribe »

When's the last time an idea you dreamed up over a whole lot of wine held up until the next morning? Usually the day after such a session is more about "Pass the ibuprofen" than "Holy crap! I had this brilliant idea to grow my business!"

But for brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt, the owners of Milbrandt Vineyards, wine-y nights--and, more so, a willingness to be flexible about their product offerings and invest in their business--have led to solid growth.

Facilitating Feedback
If you can't sit down face to face with your customers (that's a shame), then put these tools to work to learn more about what they're thinking.

Your mailing list. Send customers a short and simple survey to find out what they'd like to see from your brand. Sending out snail mail? Make sure the survey return is postage-paid.

Your telephone. How long has it been since you placed a follow-up call after a sale? Start dialing. When your customers know the phone line is open--and that you want to hear from them--they'll start calling you, too.

Your community. Get involved with other local businesses in your industry. Networking will help you find out about neighborhood happenings, needs and emerging trends.

The Milbrandts planted their first vine in 1997 in Mattawa, Wash. After 10 years of growing grapes for some of Washington's most prestigious wine labels, the Milbrandts decided to launch their own. They had the growing expertise (countless wineries whose products you've no doubt poured at your dinner table were already buying their grapes), but what they didn't have was an on-site bottling facility to produce a vintage of their own.

The Milbrandt brothers come from a long line of farmers; investing in new equipment isn't something they look at lightly. But they decided to buy a bottling machine, which led to the launch of their own label and, as you'll see, much more.

Butch Milbrandt was talking to one of their largest winery customers when the subject shifted to the new bottling operations. "Do you think you could take on some of our bottling?" his customer asked. "Our facility can't keep up."

After the Milbrandts crunched the numbers, they decided to add bottling for other wineries to their services. They've since seen their annual revenue increase by 50 percent. The company bottles more than 400,000 cases for other wineries annually, in addition to its own label's 80,000 cases. Not too shabby.

Flexibility in business begins with listening--really listening--to your customers so you can match their desires with your capabilities while also keeping your own business goals in mind. "When you talk to your customers and become avid fans of feedback, it's amazing what your business can become when you use that information wisely," Butch says. "It's not about your product. It's about the consumer, and your job is to keep your product as interesting as possible to the consumer."

By listening and then putting your existing resources to work in new, powerful and profitable ways, you just might find your business on the upswing.

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