So much of our lives are spent in front of screens now that we often forget that the quickest way to get an answer sometimes is to pick up the phone. Often Google or your fancy dashboards full of metrics don't have the answers, but the guy on the other end of the phone does.

This preference for a digital workaround is especially prevalent when it comes to customer service benchmarking. While much can be done online and some benchmarking can be automated, a one-on-one conversation with a customer is still often the best way to get the type of answers that can have an effect on your business.

The customer expectation is always right

In B2B, the sales process usually goes like this: A salesperson sells a customer a product. The customer has an expectation of the result that they're looking for when they purchase it. The best question you can ask a customer? "Did you get the results you expected?" Just that simple question will give you an amazing amount of food for thought.

If you find that customers have an unrealistic expectation of what the product or service will deliver, then it's possible that marketing and/or sales are over-promising. If your offering falls short of realistic expectations, then there may be a problem with your product. If everything's great, you need to ask deeper questions or you are not going to understand what you can do to improve.

From the vantage point of a computer screen, it can be hard to tell where you stand. Platforms like Gainsight that analyze customer behavior might tell you that something's amiss, but chances are you won't know why until you pick up the phone or go visit your customer.

Conversing directly with customers has other benefits as well. You can short-circuit problems that might prompt the cranky ones to make a lot of noise on social media. But direct conversation isn't just a defensive maneuver. Customers will often illustrate ways in which they're using your product that you didn't anticipate.

For instance, in a famous example, in its early incarnation, Instagram was a Foursquare-like check-in location app. But Instagram's early team noticed that while people weren't using the app for check-ins, they were sharing a lot of photos on the platform. You know the rest.

Finally, customers like when you ask their opinion. As long as you don't do it too much, most see it as a sign that you care about their experience with your product.

Too often marketers and salespeople outsource this research function to online surveys. Such surveys have their place, but they're better for quantifying the insights that you're already getting from customers. If you talk to three customers and they say your interface is too slow, then you know a good question to ask in a survey. And, seeing that 80% of respondents feel this way too is substantiation.

Why these conversations aren't happening

Soliciting customer feedback by having conversations is a common-sense approach to doing market research. Usually companies agree it's a good idea but are too busy to execute on it. Ironically, they may be too busy because they're addressing customer complaints that might have been thwarted by taking a proactive approach to customer service benchmarking in the first place.

There are other factors at play as well including fear of customer interaction and a preference for digital communications and data over conversation. I think this problem will get worse since Millennials are uniquely averse to using their phones to make voice calls - some 25% almost never use them for that purpose. That's a troubling trend. The data and emojis can only tell you so much.

What to do next

So, what should you do next? Pick up the phone and call 5 recent customers. Ask them if the results they are getting are meeting their expectations. You will find out an amazing number of things about your business!