Nothing drives home the importance of customer feedback like standing on a street corner handing out ice cream samples. Here are the lessons we learned.
Sometimes we're reminded of how much we love our jobs. We've been helping a start-up build their ice cream business, which has been really enjoyable. Not only do we get to sample the ice cream, but there is something more magical in this business that reinforces our beliefs about the importance of customer feedback.
Last week, we stood outside the Whole Foods store in Tribeca, in downtown Manhattan. We joined the CEO of the ice cream company to hand out individual tastes of the company's five flavors. As people walked up, we heard and saw reactions like, "Ooh, ice cream!" It's always fun to see someone's face light up at the sight of ice cream, no matter if they are four or 74 years old.
As business owners and entrepreneurs, we know that the real key to building a business is to deeply understand a customer's needs, wants, and individual tastes, and then tailor your product and service to serve those customers. We've built businesses in categories as diverse as management consulting, security products, and aerospace parts. In every case, we've sought out customer feedback as a way to hone our business model toward customer desires. The trouble with those types of businesses is that the customer feedback loop is long, and the feedback we receive is often muddled and unspecific. Businesses can invest for months or years based on an assumption about their customers that turns out to be misguided.
With the ice cream business, there are no such vagaries. On a cool September day, hundreds of potential customers were more than happy to taste our ice cream. The customer feedback loop lasted less than five seconds. When we heard, "Wow, that's the best ice cream I ever tasted," and "Mmmm, that's good, I'm going to pick some of that up," we were happy that we had hit the mark.
But we also saw some people crinkle their noses at some of the flavors and say, "I just don't care for that." Not only was it extremely useful to watch their reaction to the first taste, but we got to see which flavor they gravitated to, their reaction to the brand name and flavor names. Even more insightful was to see how people of different genders, ages, and backgrounds reacted differently to the same product.
In less than four hours, we had an entirely new and in-depth view of the business.We knew what worked and what didn't work with customers and how we could tailor our brand, our packaging, and our flavors to get the positive reaction we needed in our core customer segment. Most of all, we had better insight into some of the strategic decisions we were considering and how they would play out in the marketplace.
We love ice cream, but as entrepreneurs, what we really love is figuring out how to make a customer happy and build a business that creates happiness on a large scale. You can guess at what a customer wants, but nothing can replace seeing them place a teaspoon of your product on their tongue, and watching the magic unfold.
KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree. @karlstark