These days, with so many channels available for two-way communication with customers, it's never been easier to listen, learn, and understand what your customers need, and then to fill those needs.

But it's that second part -- filling the needs -- that trips up most startups.

Last week, I got a question from a very impressive founder who was looking to push his multimillion-dollar revenue-generating startup into growth areas he knew he was missing out on. He told me, 

It's a wickedly great business, but I'm missing out on growth -- and more effective marketing -- as I have not nailed down my target audience to speak directly to those people. I'm great with a lot of things, but I'm struggling with what questions and data points I need to be able to figure out who these super fans are.

His FOMO was not misplaced. You can listen to your customers all you want. But if you're not asking the right questions, you're just wasting your time. And theirs.

This is the one time you don't want to think like your customer. Here's what you should do instead.

There Are Two Ways to Listen to Customers

You can't escape the fact the customer is always right, even when they're wrong. In other words, when a customer is unhappy, that needs to be fixed. Immediately. It's not a matter of whether or not you solve their problem, but how far you bend over backward to solve it. 

That's reactive listening. It's mandatory. 

But proactive listening is mandatory too. Asking your customers the right questions at the right moment, interpreting their feedback properly, and then acting on that feedback with the proper amount of force -- that's a well-tested recipe for market growth. 

The problem arises when this formula is applied incorrectly. Unfortunately, that can happen in a lot of different ways at several different points in the process. I walked the impressive founder through the steps, even parsing a bunch of questions for him. 

But first I set him straight on the strategy.

Set Proper Goals for Proactive Listening

The major mistake most companies make, and this isn't exclusive to startups, is trying to find out everything they can about who their customer is, what they want, how much they'll pay for it, and how they want it delivered. 

This is too much at once. This is like meeting your favorite musician backstage and peppering them with a million questions when all they want is a shower and more drugs. 

I know why this happens, mostly because I've done it a million times myself. When we think about serving the customer's needs, especially under the guise of the often-overused "delighting the customer" strategy, we make the mistake of treating each customer as an individual.

Sure. On the front lines of interaction with the customer, especially when the listening is reactive, we need to hone in on exactly who that customer is and what they need because they came to us and started the dialogue.

But in a proactive listening exercise, like a survey or an interview, the goals of the exercise aren't about the customer at all. The goals need to be about your company. Focus on these three areas:

1) How do you define your target market (ideal customer profile)?

2) How do you sell into your target market?

3) How do you expand your target market?

If your customer question doesn't directly relate back to one of those company questions, ideally tied to an action you can take or decision you can make based on the answers, don't ask the question. The answers will just create more noise in an already noisy process.

Limit the Responses to Fit Your Goals

The second-most important thing you need to do when proactively listening to your customers is prepare yourself for their answers. 

First, group the now-tailored questions into those three categories and ask them in that order. This will give you results that allow you to take action. When you don't group the questions into something resembling a journey, it's like trying to get directions by asking "Where do I start? How do I get there? Where am I going?"

Then -- and this is critically important -- know when to limit customer answers to a set of responses that you define ahead of time by drawing those lines backwards from action items you can take.

Again, you don't need individualized input, because selling to each customer as an individual is far too time-consuming and costly, especially at the top of the sales funnel. If you want to give each customer the white-glove treatment, at least wait until they're ready to close. But before then, use your assumptions and experiential knowledge, paired with responses that are multiple choice, scales of 1 to 10, scales of strongly disagree to strongly agree, and so on. When you're done, you'll have buckets of data to help bring more customers closer to close. 

Of course, you can still ask open-ended questions, but save those for when you want anecdotal evidence, not hard data about your customer base and your target market. 

No matter what methods you use to listen to your customers, doing so can only help your growth prospects. Just make sure the questions you ask result in answers that relate to your growth, not just a reflection of a singular customer's point of view.