The firestorm ignited by the recent book, Lean In, rekindles an ongoing debate about precisely what it is that “holds women back” from achieving greater leadership.

Without entering that debate, I want to suggest that sometimes we’re held back because we focus so strongly on the laudable goal of making a difference that we eschew the very things that could help us make that difference:  We lack the intelligence we need.  Not intellect, mind you, but the ability to understand the people you serve, at a deep level.

The reality is that you can’t create either the impact or the income you deserve unless you truly know our market:  You can’t serve people well if you don’t know them well.

Most people think this insight comes from my PhD training—but I really learned this valuable lesson much earlier, from my father.

My father served a rural North Carolina community, as their banker.  He knew everyone in our tiny town, from the struggling farmer to the car dealer to our only physician.  Often, I heard farmers describe how my father helped them, sometimes providing a mortgage when no other bank in the area would take the chance.

You might conclude my father made the kind of risky loans that fueled the recent mortgage debacle.  But he actually maintained one of the best loan ratios of any bank in the area.

The secret to my father’s success was simple:  He knew when to take a risk and when not to because he knew the people he served, at a deep level.

Although the term didn’t exist then, my father used “business intelligence” well.  And as I tagged along with him in our little town, I learned something very important:  Ask the right questions and you’ll get that intelligence.  You’ll know who people are and what they need.  Then you’ll be able to make the difference you seek.

Whether you’re an author, speaker, expert, entrepreneur, or CEO, chances are good that you can’t shake the hand of every customer and look them in the eye, as my father did, to get that intelligence.  But you can still build a connection with your audience, you can create community with them—even if you aren’t in the same physical space–if you answer three simple questions:

Who Are You?   You probably know little about the people who visit your website or even cross your transom.  Once you solve that problem, by knowing exactly who they are and what problems they have, you can connect with them by crafting messages that speak directly to their specific needs.  The reality is that generic messages fail—once you get the information you need to make your marketing specific, you can increase your revenue by as much as 1/3.

What Do You Want?   Rather than creating a product, service, or program and then looking for a market—as far too many businesses do—asking this second question will let you create the products your market wants, to order.  Imagine the power of being able to say, “You told me you wanted this, so I created it for you.”  Your audience will feel invested in your product and your business—and they’ll buy from you, over and over again.  This question holds the key to turning prospects into customers and customers into lifelong fans and it can increase your revenue by as much as 1/3.

What Do You Think?  When you decide whether to invest in a product or service, you look for proof—and so do your customers and prospects.  Imagine visiting the website of a marketing consultant who offered 10 glowing testimonials.  That might seem good, until you found a SECOND consultant whose website boasted 150 testimonials, a dozen case studies, AND statistical data showing 95% of her clients would recommend her.   Wouldn’t you choose the consultant who offered the most proof?   And here’s an added incentive to ask this question:  Most businesses out there can’t offer this proof, which means you’ll differentiate yourself in the marketplace, quickly and dramatically.  Research shows that the biggest predictor of business success is differentiating your business; because our surveys show that 80% of businesses have fewer than 10 testimonials and the vast majority have little or no statistical data, getting this proof can increase your revenue by as much as 1/3.

You can answer these three critical questions simply, if you use surveys and quizzes to begin an ongoing conversation with your prospects and customers.  But that doesn’t mean grabbing a Survey Monkey template and “throwing something out there.”

  • It means building a system in your business that provides the information you need to make good decisions.
  • It means crafting questions that connect with your customers and prospects, instead of alienating them.
  • It means reporting back to them on what you find and showing them you’re using the information they gave you to serve them more effectively.

That’s the way to get the intelligence you need to “lean in,” to serve your customers and prospects, to make the difference and the income you seek.

TOPIC: Know Your Audience to Serve Them Well: A Simple Technique to Reach More of Your Market and Double Your Revenue in 2013