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VOL. 36 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 28, 2012

Taking customer complaints to a new career

By Brad Schmitt

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Chapter Two: The Nashville Ledger is launching an occasional series profiling Middle Tennessee entrepreneurs who worked for a corporation or in a mainstream industry before deciding to start their own business in a similar or completely different field. Profile suggestions should be sent to csmith@nashvilleledger.com for consideration.

During her career in customer service, Donna Drehmann spent years listening to people complain. And some of the most challenging calls came while she worked for a cell phone insurance company, one that promised customers a new phone within 24 hours if they lost theirs.

Some of those calls lasted as long as 45 minutes.

“People are passionate about their phones – and their pictures and their videos and their passwords,” Drehmann says, laughing.

“They rely on that [phone] a lot more than they realize, and they realize it when they’ve left their phone at Kroger.”

Drehmann says she always got satisfaction from helping an unhappy customer, no matter how rude he or she may have been at the start.

But Drehmann says she became even more inspired when that company started letting her be part of larger customer feedback and satisfaction projects.

“I learned how we could do things better to avoid some of these complaints,” she says.

“It was a nice switch to hear what we were doing right. And this appealed to my creative side. I liked hearing about something that’s not going well and creating a way to make a change. I really, really enjoyed that,” Drehmann says.

From idea to action

Drehmann enjoyed it so much that she decided to start her own business, Listen, Learn, Live, LLC, which helps small businesses use customer feedback to do more – and better – work.

“I said to myself, I need to take this show on the road,” she recalls. “I thought I could help more people start listening to their customers and help them get better, or help them keep loyal customers coming back, or change dissatisfied customers to satisfied customers.”

Drehmann took some savings and some seed money from a friend and launched the company. She charges $250 to come up with a needs assessment and a method to survey customers through e-mail, phone or in-store, in-person surveys.

That’s step one.

Her goal is to come up with the right questions to ask customers, to get valuable feedback, and do it in the least amount of time.

Step two is to gather the data and process it.

Drehman

Step three is to come up with three lists: What the business is doing right, what should be done right away, and what mid- to long-term changes the company might consider.

Those steps might cost clients another $250. Then Drehmann charges $85 an hour to help clients implement those plans, if they so choose.

Drehmann has helped a 10K fundraiser gather feedback from runners on the course about how the event was run.

She also has helped a Hendersonville liquor/wine store learn more about its customers.

Jim Blackshaw of Center Point Wine and Liquor says Drehmann came up with a two-minute survey to give customers in person at both the store and at the annual Taste of Hendersonville event, where his store has a booth.

“We were surprised to find out our customers are 65 percent female,” Blackshaw says. “So now, we’ve become more of a sophisticated wine store.”

Blackshaw also says Drehmann’s survey helped him think about what kinds of products to stock.

“She came in with a great plan for questions. We’re very satisfied on how she handled it,” Blackshaw says.

The customer feedback lets small businesses live out the ultimate small-business principle – work smarter, not harder.

“As a small business owner, you’re probably really busy,” Drehmann says. “But you don’t know what your customers like and don’t like.”

Systematic approach works, says expert

It’s exactly the kind of information small business owners need to grow, says Germain Boer, the director of the Owen Entrepreneurship Center at Vanderbilt University.

“I suspect most small companies really don’t spend much time doing this, not in a systematic way,” Boer says. “My guess is they just rely on their relationships with their customers, hope they’ll tell them when something doesn’t work right.

“If you do it in a casual way, you may lose some customers that you never had long enough for you to get to know them, and you don’t even realize they went away.

“But if you put in some systematic approach, I would predict you’d get a lot better information,” says Boer, who called Drehmann’s company “a great idea.”

“If she worked in customer service for a long time, she probably has spent a lot of time thinking about this issue: What should you be getting from your customers?” he says.

And Boer says Drehmann’s company should generate more than enough additional customers to cover the company’s cost of using Listen, Learn, Live, LLC.

“In general, the better you communicate with your customers, the better your sales are gonna be,” he says.

Drehmann launched the company in early 2012, and growth has been slow: She has had six clients so far.

Her goal is for the company to grow exponentially in 2013, and she hopes to replicate, Listen, Learn, Live, in other medium-sized cities in the next 10 years.

To reach Donna Drehmann, President, Listen, Learn, Live, LLC, go to listenlearnlive.org or visit her Facebook page, facebook.com/listenlearnlive.

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