updated 10/5/2014 3:45:25 PM ET 2014-10-05T19:45:25

I attended a panel discussion "Engagement: The Key to Winning" during this week's Advertisingweek conference in New York City. My friend  Jeffrey Hayzlett  was guiding a discussion about what could be considered real customer engagement. He observed that even with all the data companies collect about their  customers, businesspeople often don't listen to some of the most obvious feedback provided. Then customers stop doing business with the companies.

His example was poignant: At one time, he was a top frequent flier on United and Delta. Two years ago, he changed his travel choices and completely stopped flying on Delta after having flown hundreds of thousands of miles on that airline. The company's response? Silence. He received no communication from Delta after dropping off the company's radar.

Related: The Internet of Things Demands That Customer Service Catch Up

This story epitomies the dilemma businesspeople are facing in the world of big data. Sure, they have information on customers. This information is piling up in all sorts of places. For the most part, business owners are desperately making sure they don't miss any opportunity to record every touch point customers have with the company. But then what?

This is the entrepreneurial opportunity of the next five years. Turn your understanding of your customers into opportunities for real, meaningful connections with them. Listen to what they are really saying, not just their responses to surveys, but what they tell you when they do business (or stop doing business) with your company. 

Your most precious asset, no matter what business you have, is your existing customers. You expended considerable effort to entice these folks to do business with you. So why not intensely focus on their behavior as they do business with you? Rather than comb through the endless data about them, talk to them.

Talk to them when then arrive at your place of business. Talk to then when you deliver your service to them. Talk to them when they call. They will tell you what's really on their minds, and you can take that feedback and use it to improve their experience.

Throughout my professional life, I have lived in densely populated urban centers, so my expectations for customer service have ebbed over the past 20 years. Now I live in a rural part of the Midwest. Moving there was a lifestyle choice that I'm glad I made. As I have settled into my life away from the city, I'm having experiences that amaze me.

Related: 10 Stories of Unforgettable Customer Service

For instance, when someone arrives to fix a phone or repair a furnace, they are my neighbors. We talk about what's going on, and they listen to my concerns. Recently a propane delivery fellow was talking with me as he filled up the propane tank. I mentioned that there seemed to be a problem with the value not properly reporting the level of propane in the tank. 

What did he do? The next day -- that's right, the next day -- he came back with a replacement valve for the tank. Now that was impressive. His great service didn't end there. He said, "I'll see about getting you a credit for the propane that was lost due to this faulty valve.” I thought, Sure, I'll never see that. A week later, I received a notice from the propane company that a credit had been applied to my account in an amount that exceeded any expectation I had.

You may be asking, “How can this type of customer listening be used in larger businesses?" Easy! Every business connects with its customers every day. Capturing these interactions and translating what customers are saying as they do business with the company will, in my opinion, prove to be more valuable than all the big data you will ever collect.

Related: Market Research Has Lost Its Mojo. But Here's How It Can Get It Back.

Copyright © 2013, Inc.


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