At a company I worked at years ago, I was asked to be the liaison between our business unit and a special interest group (SIG) in our company’s users’ group. My main responsibility was being the main point of contact for the SIG’s officers in case they needed any support or information. The benefit to me was direct contact with users of the product for which I was the Product Manager. This offered great potential because as I’ve pointed out in other posts, there’s nothing more valuable than getting first hand feedback from users about their experience in using my product.
 
My introduction to the SIG officers at the users’ group event was polite but reserved. They offered generic praise for my product at the meeting and had few negative things to say. I thought it would be a nice gesture to take them out to dinner because they were visiting from out of state. That evening, the tone of the conversation changed. They were less guarded, laughed a little,
and started to point out a few things about my product that could be improved.
 
Throughout the year, we exchanged emails discussing product issues and I helped them out the best I could. At the next users’ group meeting, the communication was much more open. At dinner that evening, which became a regular occasion, I started to hear for the first time what they really thought. They were more comfortable in sharing their genuine opinions about my product, both pro and con. They talked about my competition and the kind of support they were getting from us. I started to get insights into their “total user experience” that I hadn’t heard from them before. It was a real eye opener.
 
The lesson I learned was how important the relationship is to the quantity and quality of the communication between two people. If a stranger walks up to you on the street and starts asking you questions, you’re probably going to be very guarded and reserved in your answers, assuming you’re willing to talk to that person at all. But if a good friend asks for your impressions
and opinions on a subject, you’re much more likely to open up and convey both information and emotion.

It goes the same for business. You can conduct an internet survey or perform a phone interview but unless you know the person, you need to understand the depth and quality of the information will be suspect. On the other hand, if you have a
long-time relationship with a customer based on a trust that has been earned by honest communication and satisfied commitments, you will have access to the important information, such as, what works well, what let them down, what they
worry about, and how things are changing. Isn’t this the kind of information you need to plan for the future?