Do you really know how your customers/clients feel about your products or services? And even if they’re very satisfied, wouldn’t you love to know if they have any ideas for improvements?

The simplest way to find out is to ask!

Now you might send out some type of “customer satisfaction” survey on a regular basis, but the number of people who take the time to respond is often disappointing. And any type of written feedback is limited compared to the kind of information you can get firsthand by having a live conversation. So why not find a more productive way to check in with your clients or customers to get their ideas, build rapport — and perhaps even get a referral at the same time?

What if you invited your top 20 customers/ clients to lunch (breakfast or dinner works, too), not as a group but individually? You could have an office assistant set this up for you, or do the inviting yourself: “Ms. ____________ would like to set up a lunch to thank you for your business and to get your ideas on a couple of things. Which day would you be available?” Why your top clients/customers? Because you want to continue to build on your relationship with them, and they are the people who are most likely to give you serious feedback and ideas about how you can improve. They are also most likely to give you the names of other potential customers/clients or referral sources.

Now you might be thinking, “But I don’t want to impose on my top clients/customers; what if I alienate them by asking for this information?”

The fact is that people who already like your products or services usually feel flattered that you are taking the time to invite them to a meal and ask for their opinions. So let’s say you’re having lunch with your customer/client. Most important, of course, is relationship-building. So you’ll begin the conversation by inquiring about what’s going on in her world and do some reciprocal catching up. At the appropriate time, you say something like, “Remember when I invited you to lunch, I told you that I wanted to pick your brain on a couple of things — is it OK if I do that now and ask you a few questions?” You’ll undoubtedly get a “yes.”

At that point, if you’re talking to a customer about a product, you might begin by asking, “When you buy ___________ (water softeners, a telephone system, electronic products, etc.), what are your biggest frustrations?” If you’re a professional providing a service, you’d ask, “When you work with _____________ (attorneys, financial planners, etc.), what are your biggest frustrations?” In other words, you’re first inquiry is not about your product or service, but about the customer/client’s experience with similar products/service from your competitors. Then you’ll ask, “When you have bought my product (used my services), what frustrations have you had?” Now it is likely that your client/customer will tell you something like, “Oh, your product/ service is great! I’ve been very pleased.” (After all, they are one of your best customers/ clients). So you’ll have to dig a little deeper. “Well, Mary, I’m delighted that you’ve been happy with our product (or service), but you know I’m always interested in improving my products/ services, and I truly value your opinion, so the way you can really help me is to get super picky and tell me any little thing that could make the product/service even better.”

At this point, it is helpful to mention a couple of small items just to give the other person permission to give you even the slightest criticism. So for a product, you might say something like, “Maybe the color choices, the way we package the product, the ads we run, and so on.” For a service, you might say, “Anything from the voice of our receptionist, the font on our stationery, the way our waiting room looks.” Giving a few examples will “prime the pump” for the other person to come up with ideas. Now your job is to listen carefully to whatever the other person says. Resist the temptation to defend yourself or your product/service; if you try to explain or justify, the other person will quit giving you feedback. After the person mentions something, just say, “What else?” until she has no additional information for you. Then be sure to thank her for her observations and suggestions, letting her know that you genuinely appreciate her responses.

By engaging in this process, you’ve given yourself the best chance to get accurate feedback about your product/ service. At the same time, you’ve strengthened your relationship with your customer/client, who undoubtedly appreciates the fact that you’re interested in her opinion — and that you’re the kind of person who is truly interested in improving what you offer. Even better, you just might get some new ideas for additional products/services that you can begin to offer.

As an added bonus, you’ll no doubt build customer loyalty with this process. Just think about it: If you are a Dell customer, how would you feel if Michael Dell invited you to lunch to get your critique/suggestions about Dell products and services?

Judi Craig, Ph.D., MCC, is an executive coach in San Antonio. She is president of COACH SQUARED, Inc. (www.coachsquared.com) and an Atticus SeniorPractice Advisor for attorneys.