Today's communications tools let you go directly to customers to find out what they want

The Internet, E-mail, wide and local area networks, teleconferencing, videoconferencing, voice mail, faxes -- we have wonderful communications tools at our disposal. But what do we tend to do with those tools? We talk to people in our own company. We talk to our friends. We check out cool Web sites. What we should be doing is talking to our customers -- prospective and actual -- to find out who they are, what they want, and what they think about us.

Sure, we can learn about our markets without bothering to communicate directly with customers. All kinds of communications "experts" are willing to offer advice, and we're usually more than eager to accept it, especially when the information appears intuitive and timely. But third-party business intelligence can produce misinformation -- and misinformation can lead to poor decisions. Third-party information increases the probability of failure, particularly when it's used to shape new business initiatives.

I'm in the telecommunications industry, which has undergone revolutionary growth and embraced many new ideas. Consequently, I've seen a tremendous increase in the number and variety of experts on customers' telecommunications needs. In an industry in which product development is expensive, competition is keen, and development time is short, we must make the right choices about those needs.

And market research is difficult. After we establish objectives and develop questions to ask, we have to spend significant time meeting with customers. Then we have to tabulate and analyze answers so that we can draw conclusions. Sometimes, the process is repeated again and again. It really is simpler and quicker to accept the ideas of others than to develop our own.

But essential to any good business initiative is input directly from customers. A classic example of what happens when you don't talk to customers took place just last year in the cellular-phone industry. Several years ago, the industry began projecting a rise in usage and predicted a capacity crunch unless something was done. The carriers chose, on the advice of experts, to go to a new digital-modulation technology. After investing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop the new technology and install it in time to avoid a capacity problem, the carriers announced the new service to their customers. They had few takers. Customers wanted to know why they should change. There was no benefit to them. They were quite content with their existing phones, which worked fine. So now the carriers have to develop new features that will make the digital service more attractive -- and they probably are going to have to reduce their costs to entice customers to switch. If only they had asked those customers in the first place.

Although we have many new modes of communication, we have not exploited them fully in terms of connecting with our customers. For example, sending an E-mail question to which a customer can respond at his or her convenience is minimally intrusive and takes very little time. Faxing can be used for surveys and other forms of information gathering. The Internet and on-line services can provide access to customers via electronic bulletin boards and chatrooms.

There are plenty of tools; the problem is that we're not using them effectively. Take voice mail. Much of the inflection and emphasis of face-to-face interchange can be communicated by voice mail. Voice-mail messages can be saved, passed along, returned, or dumped -- individually. Responses are equally flexible. Voice mail is a great way to sound out a customer. But how many times have you left a customer a voice-mail message saying, "This is so and so. Please call me back at . . . "? If instead you rattled off a question and then asked for a voice-mail answer, you'd get more responses and avoid wasting customers' time on telephone-tag calls.

If we use all our electronic communications tools effectively, to maximize our interactions with customers, we can cut our dependence on third-party experts, who sometimes shamelessly distort accuracy. The outcome: better decisions and more valuable business initiatives.

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R. Douglas Shute ( is CEO of Steinbrecher Corp., in Burlington, Mass.