Responding to Client Feedback: Reacting vs. Listening

Contributed by Lucy Gotell, Marketing & Client Satisfaction Manager at MemberTracker

When you run a small business, you get all kinds of feedback from your customers. Some will tell you exactly what they think of this service or that, and gently (or not so gently) suggest ways you can make things better. This dialogue can be extremely helpful when you’re starting out. Knowing what works and what doesn’t for those first critical few can help you cut away the flab and create a better experience for future clients.

happy-customerAt MemberTracker we’ve received lots of useful feedback from early adopters of the software, which has definitely influenced some of our earliest decisions. Gym owners can benefit in a similar way, making needed changes to class schedules or even amenities based on what clients say (“More towels, anyone?”). But what happens when you’re getting a whole lot of feedback and can’t possibly make every change being thrown at you? More importantly, how do you tell the difference between helpful, useful feedback that moves your business forward, and unproductive complaining?

What keeps many owners from sifting the good from the bad is a habit of reacting to customer feedback, versus truly listening to what customers have to say. It’s only when you can identify the difference between the two that you begin to feel less at the whim of every request and more like you’re working with your clients to make changes that have everyone’s best interests in mind.

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You’ve likely heard this quote before from pioneering automaker Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” A more recent example of the belief that asking for customer ideas means certain death for business is this article from Entrepreneur. There is some credence to this way of thinking; by only focusing on what people say they want, you’re closing yourself off to the potential for innovation within your business. And admittedly, most people are pretty terrible at self-identifying the tools, habits and lifestyles that will make them successful or happy.

But at its core, ‘defending the fortress’ is a flawed mode of thinking. As Mark Allen Roberts explains in his blog, “customers often share little things that annoy them and we quickly move to justifying what we do…instead of listening and making necessary changes.” However useful is might be for blocking bad ideas, the motto of ‘business knows best’ can’t be splashed around in every circumstance as a cure-all. Especially when this reaction is being driven by fear.

There’s an underlying apprehension with many owners (yes, fitness owners too) that if they stop to listen to what their customers are saying, they’ll be somehow obligated to take action. So the gut response of some entrepreneurs is to close themselves off from feedback in the first place. Others assume they must be doing something wrong if customers aren’t completely happy with how things are being done. This drives some owners to take immediate action or to make hasty promises. The problem here is that, when you jump in to make whatever change a client has asked for, you’re selling yourself (and the customer) short. Often we don’t put enough thought into whether the change in question will result in long-term benefits to your business. It’s not enough to say, “I’ve made a client happy.” You should also be able to say, “I’ve just done something that will grow my business.”

Where things seem to get tricky for many entrepreneurs is in parsing the easily fixable problems (“There are never any clean towels!”) from the potentially valuable ideas (“What if the studio offered members half price when they refer a friend?”), from the downright useless complaints (“You don’t offer a single class I can actually come to…why don’t you offer a 9 p.m. class?”). It’s understandable that you sometimes can’t tell the difference – clients may be approaching you early in the morning when your brain is barely turned on, or after a particularly hectic day when there’s a lot of other stuff on your mind.

Enter genuine listening. It’s a skill that some would argue has been lost on the Millennial generation. Whether that’s completely true or not, it works to break any decision down into manageable chunks. So instead of blindly following the lead of clients or putting your hands up when you see a complaint coming, you can instead look at client feedback thoughtfully and rationally, making informed decisions that work best for you and your clients.

The first step to the process of genuine listening lies in the time you spend soaking up what someone has to say, and in the effort you put into understanding their needs on a deeper level. When a friend tells you they’re feeling depressed, you don’t immediately drive them to the doctor’s office. You first ask some probing questions about why they’re feeling down. When did it start? Did something happen to bring the feelings on? Are there other, hidden circumstances at play?

Similarly, when a member at your small gym tells you they can’t attend your new morning HIIT class because they have to get the kids to daycare, and ask if you could add an afternoon class, you need to do your homework before saying yes or no. Start by asking a few probing questions: “How many HIIT classes are you interested in taking each week?” “Is your child’s daycare schedule permanent, or will it change within the next few months?” By finding out as much as you can beyond the initial request, you’re gaining a fuller understanding of your member’s challenges. Take the time to jot down their request – and all relevant information – on a notepad so you can come back to it later.

The next step is to figure out whether the change in question is in the best interest of your entire client base, not just the member who asked. This is where an informal survey, email questionnaire or brief conversation with other clients can come in handy. Ask if they face the same problem. Mention the proposed idea but keep your ears open for other potential solutions. Within a few short days you can get a pretty clear picture of whether a change would be beneficial for the majority or just a few outliers, and whether there’s another, better solution.

OK, so you’ve now heard back from about 15 clients and have determined that late-afternoon HIIT classes might actually be a good idea. Before you share the happy news, you have some logistics to sort out. Who’s going to teach these new classes? Do you have instructors available or will you have to bring a newbie on board? How much will this cost your gym? Do you have the time and budget to pull this off right now? Only once you’ve sat down and worked out the details can you make a final decision.

A great side effect to getting into a habit of genuine listening is that, whether your final answer is yes or no, you can tell your members with confidence, having the ‘proof’ to back up your decision. Customers recognize when a business has put effort into figuring something out on their behalf. The outcome doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’ve listened to them and gone the extra mile.

That old adage, “The customer is always right” isn’t always true. But neither is the “business knows best” approach. It is possible to make your clients feel heard while sticking to your guns when necessary. Note that the stages described above – asking probing questions, getting feedback from additional clients and working out the logistics of the proposed change – were only possible because you took the time upfront to actively listen. It’s all about taking the time to be an intelligent soundboard for your valued customers. They’ve chosen you above all the competitors out there – giving them your full attention when it counts will help ensure they stick with you, season after season.

Free eBook: 16 Tactics for Marketing Your Small Gym

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