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Radio Interview

Ann Amati was interviewed on Seattle’s KOMO radio program The Boss Show, hosted by Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.

The Boss Show: The show for anyone who is or has a boss.

Air date April 3, 2016
KOMO AM/FM radio, Seattle Washington

Steve Motenko: Welcome back to The Boss Show. I’m Steve Motenko, the psychology guy.

Jim Hessler: I’m Jim Hessler, the business guy. Today we’re going to be talking to Ann Amati. Ann helps companies get inside their customers’ heads. She works with companies in the business-to-business environment who want to understand what their customers should start, stop or continue doing to grow revenue faster and hold onto customers longer. What’s interesting is, Ann talks directly to a company’s customers to develop her recommendations. Typically these are in-depth, long phone conversations, so she really dives deep. I thought it would be interesting to talk to her. Welcome to The Boss Show.

Ann Amati: Thank you very much.

Jim Hessler: I once had a co-worker who ran a separate division in the same company. On Friday afternoons about 3:00 he would call me and say, “Jim, why do people buy stuff from us?” We had such great conversations about that. As I was preparing for our conversation, that’s one of the things I thought about.

Steve Motenko: Doesn’t that also beg the question, “Why don’t people buy from us?”

Ann Amati: I’d say the wrong person is involved in that conversation, because you don’t know the answer!

Jim Hessler: That is your point, isn’t it? We were just conjecturing, weren’t we?


Candid customer-feedback interviews

Steve Motenko: Are these anonymous interviews?

Ann Amati: Generally not. I give people that option. As I get into the conversation I say, “Let me know if there’s any part of this that you want me to hold off as anonymous or confidential.” Anonymous—I can talk about what was said, but I don’t identify who said it. Confidential—I can’t even talk about it having been said unless I can get someone else to bring it up. That’s almost always feedback about an individual employee.

Jim Hessler: So, your customers will give you a list of customers they want you to talk to about them. The idea is, with you being a third party, you’re going to get them to talk in ways they might not talk directly to their supplier.

Ann Amati: Exactly.

Jim Hessler: How do you get them to open up, to be completely honest?

Ann Amati: Some of it is I assure them, if there’s something they want to say that they’re sensitive about, they can let me know how they want me to handle the comment—as anonymous or confidential. I can only refer to confidential topics obliquely in my recommendations. I can state that something came up in the interviews that leads me to recommend you do XYZ. I have to say, Jim, we’re talking about 1% of the time.

Steve Motenko: How do you build trust? Do you say something at the front end of this conversation?

Ann Amati: I start the interview with a preamble to give them a transition from whatever activity they were doing prior to our appointment. I’m reminding them that this is an opportunity for them to give candid feedback about this vendor. I list the broad topics I’ll be asking about. And I let them know they should let me know if they have sensitive comments to share and how that works.


“Intimate” conversations with B2B customers

Jim Hessler: How unusual is your service? I don’t know that there are many people who do what you do.

Ann Amati: That’s correct, it is unusual. It’s difficult to do, and it’s difficult to do well. The success is in the preparation, process and questions. What most consultants would try to do is find a way to scale the business and turn it into an automated service that somebody else can execute. That turns it into a telephone survey service. That’s probably fine for consumer goods, but doesn’t get a vendor inside their customers’ heads.

Jim Hessler: This is an almost “intimate” conversation you’re having. You take what you’ve learned back to your client in ways that are probably pretty revelatory for them.

Ann Amati: Very much so.


You don’t know what you don’t know

Jim Hessler: Why do you think not all companies get feedback this way?

Ann Amati: Quite frankly, a lot of companies are afraid of their customers! Also, they don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t think about it. A lot of owners and presidents believe they’re hearing everything there is to hear either through their sales people or through the account managers.

Steve Motenko: There’s a clear analogy there with bosses and employees not wanting to hear feedback. They’re afraid of what they’ll hear.

Jim Hessler: There’s the belief that customers vote with their dollars. “As long as they’re buying from us, we must be okay.” But that doesn’t speak to some of the huge opportunities that are probably missed. You don’t only ask why they’re buying, you also ask what aren’t they buying and what would cause them to buy more.


Three universal questions

Jim Hessler: When we talked before the show started, you told me you have three great questions that apply to any relationship. What are they?

Ann Amati: In any relationship what you really want to know is:

  • Where do we stand?
  • Why is that true?
  • What do you recommend?

Steve Motenko: I love that! They’re simple and elegant. They’re also profound.

Ann Amati: I’m not saying I’ve ever asked using exactly those words, but that’s what my interviews always try to uncover.

Jim Hessler: The question, “Where do we stand,” invites a deep level of honesty. When something is asked that directly, they almost have to respond honestly, don’t they!

Ann Amati: You can soften it up or come at it from a slightly different angle, but that’s what you’re trying to learn. For example, I might say to you, “Jim, you and I have known each other for about ten years. There have been years when we’ve had a lot of coffee meetings, and a lot of empty years in between. I’m curious to know if we can resume the relationship we had at one time. Give me a sense of where things are from your perspective.” That’s a way of asking, “Where do we stand,” without being so abrupt.

Jim Hessler: I like it. I can see it working in boss-employee relationships, personal friendships and business relationships. Great question.

Steve Motenko: Using the boss-employee relationship as an example, it can be applied over the trajectory of our working relationship. It can also be directed at the current conversation. Early in our relationship, Jim, you used to ask me at the end of a long conversation, “How did we do?”

Jim Hessler: I remember. The “Why is that true” question fills in more details, right?

Ann Amati: Yes. In a supplier’s customer-feedback interview, I ask about the history of the relationship from the customer’s perspective. The supplier has already told me what they know about the relationship’s trajectory. That may or may not line up with the customer’s perception of that same history. And finally, “What do you recommend?” invites the customer to ask what they want to see changed.

Steve Motenko: When I’m in a coaching environment and I ask something akin to “Where do we stand,” I tell people they are not allowed to answer “fine,” “good,” or “well.” Would you agree with that?

Ann Amati: I never hear those answers! When they know one of their vendors has brought in an outsider to find out what they have to say, and the questions are relevant to that relationhip, customers take it seriously.


A “war story”

Jim Hessler: Going back to the question, “Why is that true,” can you give us an example of how that goes?

Ann Amati: There might be two completely different stories about the history of the relationship. Perhaps when it was brand new there a common perception, but as time goes on, the perceptions of what’s happening changes. Any two parties can view the same incident differently. An example of that is, a vendor brought me in because they were in deep water with a very important customer. The vendor thought they had solved the problem, but they weren’t entirely sure. My job was to make sure there was nothing going on that the vendor didn’t know about. The fact was, they had not solved the problem at all. The customer had just gotten tired of complaining. That’s lethal.

Steve Motenko: That’s usually the last step before severing the relationship!

Ann Amati: Correct, and in this case the customer had started looking for another vendor. In the interviews, I dug and dug and dug and finally realized that what had happened to cause them to come off track was this: The relationship seemed unchanged from the perspective of the vendor because the vendor’s org structure hadn’t changed over time, but the customer’s organization had changed considerably. The vendor simply wasn’t paying attention and saw what they wanted to see. No matter what the customer said, the vendor found reasons to believe the relationship was still the way it had always been. They just weren’t listening. When I came back I said, “Look, this is the change that happened that you’re closing your eyes to. It’s your reality now. You have to adapt to those changes, otherwise you will no longer be their vendor.” They made changes, and they resumed the relationship.

Jim Hessler: There are so many times in my personal life where I’ve known people who were shocked at a relationship that ended unexpectedly. “I had no idea she was unhappy.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that.

Steve Motenko: Person and professional relationships can seemingly end out of the blue, but there was something fundamentally wrong.

Jim Hessler: I can see this in a business-to-business setting: “They’re still buying, so everything must be okay.”


Contract security is a double-edged sword

Ann Amati: The big risk happens when you’re in a long-term contract. In that situation, you don’t have to work to stay in the relationship. You get a free ride until the contract comes up for renewal. Contract security is a double-edged sword.

Jim Hessler: When you lose it, there’s story you want to tell about why you lost it, which may or may not be accurate.


Course corrections

Jim Hessler: I would imagine you have to be fearless about delivering the news to your client.

Ann Amati: I am willing to be shot for insubordination! I am willing to tell you things I know you’re not going to happy to hear. But that’s my job.

Steve Motenko: To what degree do you stick around to see things through?

Ann Amati: I generally don’t. I learn what you’re trying to accomplish with this engagement, execute the project, deliver a written report, and come back to talk about the findings to provide clarification and do some brainstorming. I can’t help you implement because usually there’s no real “implementation” required. You generally need to make course corrections of some sort. You don’t need coaching or consulting. You usually have all the resources you need. You just didn’t know about the problems customers either weren’t spelling out or had stopped complaining about.


A one-two punch

Jim Hessler: I can imagine there are times when your client is shocked by what they hear. You catch them flat-footed.

Ann Amati: Some go into denial and put their head in the sand. I will tell my client as we’re getting to know each other, “What you hear through me will either be the ‘one’ of a one-two punch or the ‘two’ of a one-two punch. If it’s a ‘one,’ that means you haven’t heard it before, but please act on it, because I’m not making it up. If it’s the ‘two,’ that means you have heard it before and you haven’t resolved it, so get going.”

Steve Motenko: And you’ll find yourself on the canvas if you don’t do something about it!


What current and former customers know

Jim Hessler: Having been an executive in the distribution industry, I can tell you there’s a habit that a lot of companies have of throwing the customer under the bus when they stop buying. Or when the customer expresses disappointment with our service or product, there’s a tendency to blame the customer or decide the customer doesn’t know what they want. To truly be open to feedback is a good leadership stance to take, even if you’re scared to hear it.

Ann Amati: To that point, there’s a lot of useful feedback you can get from former customers. I work on four types of projects: assessments, investigations, treasure hunts and rescue missions.

  • Assessments are straightforward feedback interviews.
  • Investigations look to understand why a phenomenon is happening. For example: Why are we winning some sales but losing others? Or: Why did these customers really leave?
  • Treasure hunts answer: How do we get more revenue from existing customers? Or: How do we find and close new customers?
  • Rescue missions answer: Can this marriage be saved?

Former customers can be a part of an investigation. They have useful information, too. They were happy for a while, then they moved on. What went wrong? Because other customers might be “reaching for the door knob” for the same reasons.

Jim Hessler: This is an important point to make: So many companies only talk to happy customers. When you only talk to happy customers, you get an incredibly distorted perspective about your business. It’s good to know why people buy. But it’s extraordinarily important to find out why they buy from other suppliers or don’t buy at all.

Ann Amati: That’s right. Customers know, among other things: how they found you, why they gave you a chance, what’s so great about you, where you’re leaving money on the table, and what would put the relationship at risk. Former customers and failed sales know where you missed. In there, there’s a lot of information. You don’t have to go after all of it at once. You can make faster, more confident decisions by deciding which slice of that you want to focus on first. It’s a matter then of learning what those customers think and want.


Closing message

Steve Motenko: You told me you have a “month-after message.” In other words, a message you want people to remember a month after they’ve spoken with you. What is it?

Ann Amati: It’s this: Your customers have opinions about you, whether you ask to hear them or not. So ask.

Jim Hessler: Amen. Again, a company’s top-line revenue on their profit and loss statement does not tell the whole story. There may be a lot of people who are buying from you begrudgingly. There may be a lot of people who would prefer to buy from someone else, if they knew their options or had options. And there may be people who are about to bail that you don’t know about. I can’t think of a business person who hasn’t had that experience.

Steve Motenko: We’ve been talking with Ann Amati whose company, Deliberate Strategies, is on the Web at AccountLoyalty.com. She interviews businesses business customers to get inside their heads and hear their feedback. Ann, thanks so much for joining us this afternoon. It’s been a fun conversation.

Ann Amati: Thank you, Steve. Thank you, Jim.

  • Click here to request a copy of Ann’s book, “What Aren’t Your Customers Telling You That You Need to Know? Case Studies, Tip and Tools”
  • Customer feedback case studies, tips and tools