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Find the Courage and Ask Some Clients How Your Company Can Improve To get a clear picture of what you're doing well and what you can do better, skip the big data and high-rent consultants. Your customers will tell you, if you just ask.

By Ryan Vanni Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We've had a mantra around here for years now: User First.

To us, it simply means empathy towards the needs and desires of the user, the person on the other end of the mouse, the person we are really working for. We started saying it when we realized it was a unifying theme for how we approached creative concepts.

To really have an informed empathy, we needed to get to know the user through research, workshops, conversations and spreadsheets of data. So, it should have resonated with me when my trusted consultant and mentor, Don Morrisson, asked me a horrifying question, "If you really want to know how to get more right-fit clients, why not just ask the ones you got why you got 'em?"

Related: How to Figure Out Exactly What Your Customers Want

But, no, it didn't. Frankly, it scared me when he suggested I invite SIX clients to talk to each other, and him, about us! Not one of these clients knew one another. His confidence in how this would all play out was, on the surface, affirming but I filed it in my mind…way, way back in my mind.

Don has been doing these types of sessions for years, for clients of all sizes, in all industries and all over the country. He refers to them as the Customer Advisory Board, or CAB. His rational is refreshingly simple. Somewhere in a company's dealings with their customer is an underlying and intrinsic value that compels the customer to return. Price and quality are reasonable factors in making a sale, but not necessarily in building a customer who trusts you and returns for more value.

Don has found that, especially at small businesses run by the founder, to zoom out and and ponder the deeper reasons why doesn't even cross the radar as a thing to do. He has helped many a small business, just like mine, by having these simple conversations and converting that compelling truth into a business position that leverages the magic. As a marketing guy, I know those sorts of truths are gold.

Let's get to work

It took courage to ask my clients help but, after six months of wavering, I was ready to peel back the layers.

I made a list of the clients whose opinion I really wanted. They were the type of people I want to work with more often, not necessarily the type of companies. This was not about finding more clients but finding the right clients. I typed a letter, as honest as could be and hand-signed, asking for their help.

Low and behold, two days later (remember I mailed the request), I received my first confirmation. I was blown away. Confirmations came in at a steady clip, with sincere "thank you's" for including them and pats on the back for what a refreshing idea it was to have this chat. (I was happy to take credit. Sorry, Don.)

Related: 3 Questions You Should Be Asking Your Clients

How we did it

An interesting, but important factor to this meeting, was that I was not invited. No leadership from my agency was. This was to be a candid, alive and breathing version of the "comment box." Don would lead the group in a conversation, let them talk and note important insights that could impact the company, whether positive or constructively critical.

In general, the questions surrounded three topics:

1. What does BKWLD do well now, and why do you do business with them?

2. What would make you abandon BKWLD?

3. What else could BKWLD do for you that would add to their service?

The session was intentionally conversational, almost folksy, to get the participants talking. No "yes or no" questions. Here are a couple examples of how Don got them talking about the right things:

"Tell me two or three things about your interactions the company that stand out in your mind." (Note that the questions were not directed at a particular client in the room, so each felt comfortable exchanging in the dialog.)

"What else could they bring to the table that they are not bringing now? In other words, what else do you want their help on?"

These can sound overly simple, but I believe simplicity is often what we under value. In the age of data, we sometimes forget the value of just talking to people about what is important to them.

What we learned

What came out of that evening were gems. We were reminded of simple truths about ourselves that we overlooked as everyday fare.

We learned our clients can be overwhelmed by the changes their companies face in this new digital age but we provide a "calm confidence" in their decisions to move forward. We are now better leveraging our key insights (some of which we have undervalued and kept to ourselves), while offering stronger recommendations and more robust strategic services. That means more revenue.

We learned that a strong point of distinction was our interpersonal style, and good people-based culture. We decided to be very intentional about avoiding MBA speak, and introduced unorthodox methods for meetings, research and strategy. We were even told "we would of paid them $15,000-$20,000 more if they only offered this service". Well guess what? We now offer that service, and have a client-tested price point at which to offer it.

The journey to implement the findings has only begun but it has started a dramatic overhaul of our approach, offering and company position. This was not inspired by some market aspiration of what we wanted to be, but instead what we always were. Sometimes, to learn, all you gotta do is ask.

Related: Mark Cuban on Why You Should Never Listen to Your Customers

Ryan Vanni

Founder and CEO, BKWLD

Ryan Vanni is founder and CEO of BKWLD, a digital agency based in Sacramento he formed in 2001 at the age of 21 to offer strategy, design and execution across all digital channels to a wide range of consumer brands. Vanni oversees the direction of the agency and spearheads business development while working directly and intimately with agency clients to ensure alignment between brand and digital strategy.

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