Your Suburban is parallel parked tight between a Lexus and a Porsche and you’ve got to get out pronto. You could use the touch and bump method hoping you don’t do too much damage. Or, you could ask someone outside of the car to spot you.
The reality is when you’re in the driver’s seat of your business, you’ve got limited vision. You can see what’s ahead of you and what’s behind you but you can’t see how you look compared to the landscape. What I’ve learned from being in business and working with numerous successful business owners is that you need the perspective of others.
One way to get this perspective is a process I call the 360° interview. Basically, you talk to everyone and anyone you can think of to find out what they think of your business and industry. Think of it like looking in a three-way mirror, or asking how close you are to the car in front of you.
The key to making this an effective exercise is preparation. Be clear about who you’re going to talk to, what you’re going to ask, and what you plan to do with the info. You can do this on your own or bring in your whole leadership team. If you want to take it to the next level, set up formal focus groups.
Who to Ask
You’re going to want a broad range of perspectives. This could include your team, clients, business partners, business buddies, and your neighbor. You want some people who know your business well, but it’s good to hear from those who don’t to get that far distance perspective.
Ultimately, you’ll be looking at the entire business including operations, sales, marketing, human resources, customer service, etc., but it helps to break it down into sections and focus on them separately with the appropriate audience.
You don’t need to ask everyone you interview about every aspect of your business. Just focus on the area that person would know the most about.
What to ask
Keep in mind that the goal is not to affirm what you know but to find out what you don’t know. Our natural tendency is to seek info that will back up our assumptions, but it’s super critical here to be open to finding out whether your assumptions are off base. Check your ego at the door and let your subjects know that you want honest answers and assessments.
The questions will depend on who you’re interviewing and the topic you want to cover. The goal here is to uncover how others think you’re doing compared to how you think you’re doing along with getting new ideas.
For clients and customers, ask what they think your company’s strengths and weaknesses are. Does that match with your mission? Does it fit with what you’re promoting? The easy question is what do they like about working with you. It’s always nice to hear good things. But the tough follow up question is what do they find difficult about working with you? Maybe it’s something you can fix, maybe not. But at least you’ll know.
With your team, ask about what they like best about working for the company. Have they noticed changes? Are those changes good or bad? Often when we make changes, they have unintended effects that we’re not looking for.
An employee at a company I work with noted that she was hearing from managers less often. Turns out the company had started using a new communication platform but not everyone was comfortable with it so people were talking less. It was an easy fix once the problem was ID’d.
Other topics to cover with your team are customer interactions, general operations, and systems. Now is a good time to see if everything really is running as smoothly as you think it is.
Your business partners, vendors, and service providers can give you a comparison to others they see in the industry. What is it like to work with you? What’s going well. What do they see coming that you might want to prep for?
Those who don’t know your company are useful because they aren’t coming in with preconceived ideas and they don’t have a vested interest. Ask them their impressions of your brand, your services, your product ideas.
What to do with the info
You will probably come up with a lot of ideas as you do the interviews. While it’s tempting to jump in and start making changes, you put yourself at risk of “chasing shiny objects” syndrome. That’s when you get started going after one great idea and then get distracted by another and another and so on. Pretty soon, you’ve got a lot started but not much done.
Go ahead and note any pressing concerns that need immediate attention. Take care of those and then settle into some longer-term strategy and planning.
Look through your notes for any repeated themes either good or bad. Start with what seems to be working well. If your customers are happy with the level of attention they get, reinforce those efforts and find ways to get the word out. If a particular service line or product line is outstanding, take a closer look at why and how that can be replicated or expanded.
To wrap this up, you’ll need to tackle the trouble issues. It’s likely that you’ll come up with more questions than answers. Is there a real problem or is it a misperception? Is there something to fix or is it more a need to communicate better? If you can’t do anything about it now, can you make improvements later? These interviews are intended to show you what’s going on and give you a sense of what to address. Now it’s up to you to decide what direction you want to take.