Writing the second edition of Building & Running a Successful Research Business got me thinking about how much change I have seen in the info-sphere as well as the business marketplace over the past two decades I've been in business. I attribute at least a portion of my success to the ability to just shut up and listen. I learn far more from conversations when I do most of the listening than I do when I'm the one talking.
Some of the most important times to be listening include when you are starting your business, when you realize that you need or want to make a change in your client base, and when you decide you want to explore a new industry. You can't make sound decisions until you learn about your prospective clients, and the most effective way to learn is to listen. I call these conversations "informational interviews" -- you are interviewing the other person just to learn about what informational pain points they have and what needs you can address. This isn't necessarily a marketing conversation; you are simply taking in new information.
Following are my thoughts of having these kinds of illuminating conversations.
You will need to prepare some open-ended questions that are clear, free of info-jargon, and that look at the world from your clients' perspective. The point here is to find out what your clients' pain points are. Your questions might be similar to these:
What will be the biggest challenge in your industry within the next six months?
How do you maintain a competitive edge -- both you personally and your company within the industry?
What do you wish you knew about your competition?
How do you stay on top of industry news and opportunities?
When you need to make a strategic decision, what information do you use? What information are you missing?
If I sent you a weekly package of information, what would you find most useful?
What keeps you awake at night?
Note that none of these are yes/no questions -- they are all open-ended and encourage your contacts to think about what they need but don't even know they need. During your short interview, remember that your job is to ask questions and then just listen. You aren't marketing to them, and you aren't talking about the fabulous services you provide. You are just listening and asking follow-up questions to learn enough so that you can later design a product or service they would find immediately beneficial. You are creating a business around your clients' needs, and that means you have to learn about their needs before you can create or realign your business.
Once you have conducted several of these in-depth interviews, you will have a much better idea of what your market's biggest concerns are and in what situations they would be willing to pay well for what your company does. And keep the people you interviewed in the loop about your business. They have already proven that they are engaged enough to share a bit of time with you; do send them personalized notes every quarter, letting them know how your business is going. They may turn into clients; at the least, they can offer feedback as you go forward and serve as a source of referrals. All that from you asking some questions!