How well do you actually listen to your customers?

I don't mean throwaway statements like "the customer is always right" which sound nice but don't really carry much weight. In truth, the customer is sometimes wrong and catering to them with a misguided adjustment is not always wise.

I also don't mean conducting a survey about product satisfaction that mostly feeds the ego of the product designers (or gets them fired) but not much else.

I'm talking about a thorough analysis of customer preferences followed by actual changes that are not just hard to do and quite expensive, but even risky. The kind where a long-established process--say, using frozen beef in 36,000 of your stores all over the world serving 69 million people daily--and altering that plan in a way that is almost a bit foolish.

Foolish to the tune of $60 million in retrofit costs.

I have to admire McDonald's for their decision to switch to fresh beef about a year ago, and now the results are in. The franchise announced recently that using fresh ground beef in their stores has led to a 30% increase in sales.

In case you're wondering, it did start with a survey.

Last year, the chain started serving Quarter Pounders with fresh beef in about 400 stores in Texas and Oklahoma. You can imagine the executive team wringing their hands wondering how it would all turn out. Maybe customers would hate fresh beef and everything could go back to normal? Maybe none of the stores would have to radically alter their supply chain. Well, the company found that 90% of customers loved the change.

Oops moment? Bad news for the golden arches?

Not really.

For anyone running a company or trying to make marketing or product decisions, it's important to realize that customer feedback is pure gold.

If you don't ask customers for feedback then you are shooting blindly into a dark alley. McDonald's knew that there was a risk, and yet they took the time to analyze what customers really want in a thorough (and costly) way.

Here's my challenge for you. Look closely at what your company sells, what you do in your job, and how you do your marketing. Are you asking for feedback? Have you conducted a survey of your customers and asked them what you could do differently? My guess is that you have done some surveys and research, but maybe not as thoroughly.

It takes time and effort, and there's a huge risk. You have to be willing to not only ask for the feedback but then make the changes that customers request. Not doing that is way more costly. Your company might not even survive (remember the dark alley).

You also have to ask the right questions, which are often the hard questions. You have to analyze the results, compare them against other surveys, hold focus groups to discuss the feedback, and make hard changes based on what you hear.

To take the challenge further, will you try a new survey and then listen closely to the results and make changes? If you do, follow up with me about the results and I'll do a follow-up article about how several readers took me up on the challenge.