If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Know

Last week, I spoke at a conference in Bali, Indonesia, for a group of 1,000 business leaders and HR professionals from all around the country. I was talking about one of my favourite topics: leading through change, disruption, and uncertainty.

In my briefing call with the conference organisers, they shared some of the biggest challenges they faced. But we also wanted to know what the audience thought, because some of their problems and goals might be very different. So I created a short online survey asking one question:

‘What is your biggest HR challenge right now?’

The organisers sent that to the delegates before the event, and also displayed a QR code for the survey on every table:

Before my keynote presentation, I took the responses and made a word cloud of the main topics, which we showed during my presentation:

This helped the moderator when she was leading the Q&A session, showed the audience we were listening to them, and provided a simple engagement tool for people to feel more involved.

But most important of all, I knew I was addressing their real issues.

This is especially important now.

You might think you know what your customers, employees, and other stakeholders want – but are you sure? Even if you have a long-term relationship with them – and in fact, especially if you do – take the time to ask them. In a crisis (like, say, a global pandemic!), we all re-assess, re-evaluate, and re-prioritise what matters most.

Unless you ask, you might never know.

I often tell the story of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), who wanted to boost audience numbers by selling more annual subscriptions. They started with a simple idea: Offer a free concert to people who had never been before, and hope that would convert them into enthusiastic fans.

They had good news and bad news. The first part – getting new people through the door – worked. But the BSO were disappointed to discover over 90% of first-time concert-goers didn’t return.

Fortunately for the BSO, they didn’t just guess at the reasons. They surveyed all these first-timers to ask why they didn’t come back. To their astonishment, they found the number one reason for not returning was parking! The regular concert-goers knew where to park, but for the newcomers it was a major problem – so they didn’t return. If the BSO hadn’t asked their customers, they would never have guessed the reason.

When was the last time you asked customers, clients, employees, and other stakeholders to find out what they really want? If you haven’t done this for a while, you might never know about the parking!

Take the time to reconnect with people – especially those long-term relationships you might be taking for granted. Ask them what matters to them now, and listen with fresh ears and an open mind. Otherwise, you might be operating from assumptions that no longer reflect reality.


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