It’s one of the (many) questions that keeps small business owners awake at night: How do I know that what I’m selling is what my customers want? It’s especially personal for artists and makers who sell handmade creations that are close to their hearts. But there’s a way to find out if your work is hitting the mark, one that a lot of businesses small and large overlook: talk to your customers!

There are stories about how revered visionaries like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs never talked to their customers. Ford is reputed to have said that if he had asked people what they wanted they would have told him they wanted a faster horse, and Jobs supposedly hated focus groups.

But you can’t conclude from those anecdotes that talking to your customers is only for those poor suckers who lack vision. What both Ford and Jobs were saying is that you can’t ask your customers to tell you what to make or sell. That inspiration has to come from you. What you can ask your customers is how to make what you’ve created better.

You can’t ask your customers to tell you what to sell, but you can ask them how to make it better.

Apple spends uncountable sums of money testing its products with real people to make sure they get the design nailed before they ship it. Your business is probably different from Apple’s in a few ways, but you can also benefit from learning from your customers and making your products even more desirable with your target market.

What you can learn if you talk to your customers

Your past customers are a gold mine of information. They can tell you what went well in the sales process and what was confusing. They can tell you if your packaging was delightful or damaged. They can tell you about a weakness or flaw in a product that only shows up after months or years of use.

Your past customers can even tell you if you need to revise your shipping policies—one client of mine realized they had to offer USPS, FedEx, and UPS even though USPS was always cheaper because many customers had unreliable delivery from one carrier or another.

People who aren’t yet your customers can answer different types of questions: are your marketing strategies communicating what you want them to? Are they reaching the people you think are your ideal customers? Are those people really your ideal customers at all? Is your product missing one crucial feature or element that makes it a non-starter for a specific type of customer?

Talking to people who returned your products might be awkward but can reveal a hidden weakness in your process or product.

Finally, you need to talk to your exes. No, not that kind, your ex-customers. Talking to people who returned your products or who abandoned a purchase or custom order part way through might be a little awkward, but they’ll have very specific feedback for you. Sure, they might just have unrealistic expectations. Or, they might reveal a critical, hidden weakness in your sales process or product that only a nitpicker would notice but affects everybody.

How to Talk to Your Customers

First you need their contact info. Hopefully you keep track of that for all of your past customers, at least the ones who order online. If you have an email list (and you should—it’s the best marketing you can buy) that’s even easier. People who cancelled or returned orders might be a little more difficult, but if you aren’t keeping track of them too, start now so that in a few months you can circle back with them and find out what made them bail out.

For most purposes you should resist the temptation to email or call your customers and have a chat. Most people are too polite to be completely honest with you on the other end of the phone; they don’t want to hurt your feelings with anything other than glowing feedback.

Resist the temptation to just email or call your customers and have a chat.

A better way of getting feedback on specific items is to have your customers take a short survey. Tools like SurveyMonkey, Typeform, or even Google Docs let you create online surveys for free and offer easy reporting tools.

When you’re creating your survey, try to avoid questions with open ended answers. People don’t like being asked to do a lot of writing and the answers will be harder to sort and measure. Questions answered on a scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 10, yes/no/maybe questions, and multiple choice are all easy for people to answer and easy for you to analyze. Put a “comments” field at the end and follow up with people whose answers seem like they merit more investigation.

If you want to really dive deep, consider hiring a customer researcher to conduct interviews with people on your behalf. An open-ended interview will often get you insights that a structured survey would miss. A similar approach works with potential customers. Sending someone out to an urban market or art show (or going on an undercover mission yourself) to ask people about products similar to yours will give you an insight into the beginning of your target market’s decision making process and teach you how they become aware of products like yours.

Customer Feedback is your Friend

It might feel like tough love sometimes, but reaching out to your customers and hearing what they have to say is one of the most effective ways of improving your products and your business. You’ll also be communicating something very important: that you actually do care about what your customers think, and that you are always looking for ways to make what you sell, and how you sell it, better.
Customers won’t see this as a sign of weakness or ignorance; they’ll be flattered that you care what they think, and that will make them more likely to buy from you again and tell their friends to, as well. And hey, even a genius needs a little outside advice some time.