We're all familiar with customer satisfaction surveys. "Did we meet your needs? What is your perception of our service? Rate us 1 to 5"...blah blah blah.

Surveys like this can provide helpful information about what customers think, but they're usually too general to be very effective.

Continual improvement of products and services can be an effective approach to maintaining existing customers and winning new ones, especially if your goal is to create strong word of mouth. Strong word of mouth tends to create customer evangelists, those passionate advocates who tell others about your products and services.

To truly understand what your current evangelists think about you, say about you, and do about you, you must dig deeper than the typical satisfaction survey.

To understand what lives in the minds of your customers, you should seek out the following:

  • What do current customers say that they LOVE about you?
  • What specifically do they say you should improve?
  • When was the last time you disappointed them?
  • What do they value the most about your company?
  • Which specific customers recommend you the most?
  • What do they say specifically--in their own words--when they recommend you to others?

Our term for seeking the answers to these questions is "Customer Plus-Delta:" The plus signifies what's working well; the delta is all about specific improvement.

Here are six ways to gather this valuable customer knowledge that goes directly to the heart of creating customer evangelists:

1. Take At Least One Customer To Breakfast Or Lunch Every Week
Ask them as many questions as you can think of. Let them do all the talking. Sounds easy enough, right? Funny how fast our schedules fill up with internal meetings. Your customers are more important than anything else that could possibly be going on inside your company.

2. Scour the Web
Use Google to search what people say about you on fan sites, in the newsgroups, on email discussion lists. An online search will help you discover -- and quickly contend with- any customer vigilantes.

3. Do Customer Interviews
And we don't mean focus groups. Ask an independent third party to perform in-depth, in-person or phone interviews to capture what customers really think.

4. Use Online Surveys
Develop brief, 5-8 question surveys with at least a few open-ended questions, such as the ones mentioned earlier. Send the survey to your house email list and put it on your web site. SurveyMonkey is a terrific tool for this, and you can't beat its cost.

5. Host an Online Discussion
Bring your best customers together in an email discussion group (groups.Yahoo.com and Topica.com are free.) For the more advanced, try an online conference tool such as WebEx or PlaceWare.

6. Create a Customer Advisory Board
Ask your best customers to meet, physically or virtually, and provide feedback on a regular basis. You'll be surprised at how many customers jump at the chance to be on a board.

The strategy of Customer Plus-Delta has two additional benefits:

• You'll add to the buzz that you are a customer-centered company. Your customers will tell their friends, colleagues and family that you value their opinions. • You can document the positive comments you receive and use them as testimonials in your brochures, on your web site, and in your PR efforts.

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Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are the authors of Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force.