29 Apr

Talk Less, Listen More


“I use this amazing music software.  They know exactly what musicians need!”

“I want a doctor who will listen to me and let me be an advocate for my daughter.”

“I love my hair stylist.  He really listens to what I want.  He doesn’t just do whatever he thinks is trendy.”

In the last few weeks, these are actual snippets of real conversations that I had with people talking about the products and services they buy and use.

Notice that the common thread here is that people are talking about how much they love the fact that they feel listened to.  It is such a simple idea, it is a wonder that more companies don’t do it.

Think about it.  When was the last time you spoke with any company and you felt like they listened to what you had to say?  I would hazard a guess that your default expectation was that you would be ignored.   We expect to be put on hold.  We expect to get emails from “no-reply” addresses.  We expect to sit around in endless tech support loops.  We expect telemarketers to doggedly and resolutely go through their pitch, regardless of anything we say.

Can you remember the last time you felt listened to by a business?  If it has ever happened at all, I’m guessing that you remember it quite vividly since it is such a rare occurrence.  That time the bank teller said right away “no problem ma’am, we’ll get that fixed”.  The time you used some software that seemed to know exactly what you needed.   That time you paid for parking at one of those pay parking kiosks and didn’t want to kick it in from frustration.

I will let you in on  my dirty little professional secret. 

So much of what I do in my consulting practice is really just a fancy term for “listening”. 

Getting to know your customers so that you know what they need before they do – that comes from listening.   If you want to know your customers’ problems better than they know it themselves, you can’t do that if you are focused on “email blasts”.  You need to stop blasting and let them talk to you.  You can call it “Market Research” or “Voice of Customer” or “Customer Experience Strategy”  but in the end, it all comes down to different techniques and strategies of listening.

This is a simple concept, but like many simple concepts, it is not easy to do.  If you don’t believe me, try this simple test.

The next time you are at a party with lots of new people, or at one of those networking events we all dread, try to actively learn more about the person you are talking to than to get them to learn about you.  You will find that it is surprisingly difficult to turn off the “OK now it’s my turn to talk” part of your brain.

In business, the urge to do all the talking is amplified.  We want to rise above the noise by talking more, or talking more loudly, or listing all our amazing features (the more the better!).  But pay attention to who YOU pay attention to the most.  Is it the company who talks the loudest and the most often, or is it the company that stopped talking and listened to you?

The best news of all? The bar for listening to customers is incredibly low.  

Talk less, listen more. Then watch how it makes a difference.

15 Apr

Voice of Customer programs are like car maintenance and housecleaning


Just in time for “spring cleaning”, my real estate agent sent me this very helpful list on how to keep a clean home.  I’m not sure, I suspect it may have been a comment on the state of my house.


I’m not much of a housekeeper so I switch the “daily” to “weekly”,  The “weekly” to “monthly”, the “monthly” to “umm… I think I saw something move”,   and the “once a season” to “when I move”.

That said, I do like the idea of keeping to a schedule.  There are some things that you do every once in a while, and some things you need to do more frequently.

I noticed my car owner’s manual has a similar approach.

  • Break-in service:  after 2,000 km (that’s 1,200 miles for you non-metric folks)
  • Oil/filter change: every 5,000 – 10,000 km
  • Break fluid flush: every 2 years

And so forth…

When it comes to Voice of Customer programs, many organizations get overwhelmed by the number of methods and approaches that they can take.  Should they do a survey?  Social media analysis?  Interviews?  Focus groups?  Customer Panels? Analyze their site/product analytics?  Should we be doing this “big data” thing?

There are so many different options that sometimes organizations become paralyzed with indecision.  Or, more insidiously, they try to cram in ALL customer learning into one vehicle.  “We’re doing a survey?  Great, let’s ask them about these twenty other things we’re dying to know”.

It’s not a sprint.  You wouldn’t do all your housecleaning all in one go, and you wouldn’t maintain your car that way either.

A good Voice of Customer program takes a similar approach.  There are things you should do when you first launch a product or service, or when your customer first gets your product.  The “Break-in Service” if you will.  Then then are things that you should do every week, every month, every quarter, every year or two. 

I find it useful to think of customer listening along two different dimensions.  One is how direct the technique is.  Direct techniques involve asking the customer directly about something.  Those techniques include things like surveys and interviews.  Indirect techniques are ways that you might infer your customers’ needs, thoughts and desires through quietly observing them.  These might include things like ethnography, website analytics, or social media monitoring.

Another dimension is how frequently you might perform the activity.  Frequent activities might include customer satisfaction surveys every time a customer completes a transaction, usability testing, or Google analytics (depending on your site traffic).  Infrequent activities might include customer journey mapping, customer panels, or ethnography.

When you map out different techniques into quadrants, you get something that looks like this.


 As a good rule of thumb, it is useful to do one technique out of every quadrant.  Unless you are a very large organization, you won’t have the resources to do all of these.  The specific tool you use will depend on the specifics of your business and product.

Maintaining a customer-centered organization requires constant attention.  You can’t achieve it by creating a task force once a year that goes around and points fingers at people.  Just like you wouldn’t expect your car to run smoothly if you launched a “car quality initiative” once every 12 months.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be onerous.  You don’t have to do everything at once.  Pick a few things that make sense for you, put yourself on a schedule, and do it regularly.  Your customers will thank you.

02 Apr

Do you suffer from L.E.S. (Loudest Engineer Syndrome)?


Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You are sitting around a table in a corporate conference room with your team.  The purpose of the meeting is to decide on the features of the product so you’ve gathered together all the people that you think should have a say in this decision, which usually involves an engineer or two or three.  You talk about it.  “We need to do feature x in red” says someone.  Others disagree. “No, we need to do feature x in blue”.

The meeting circles around for a while.  Then you have someone in the room that is really opinionated.  He insists that his way is the CORRECT way.  And builds a case for it.  Loudly.  He nonchalantly brushes aside objections as being illogical, or not having data to back it up.  He puts the burden of proof of those that resist his ideas.

Finally, people end up agreeing with him.  Partly because they are just beaten down, but also because no one has any evidence to support an alternate point of view.  

What just happened here?  You just made a product decision because:

  • You wanted to avoid another painful meeting like this one
  • You are running out of time and any decision seemed better than no decision
  • You didn’t want to antagonize the loud engineer


Clearly, none of these are very good grounds to make product decisions.  If you find it frustrating to make decisions this way, how do you think your customers feel when they have to live with the results?

What is intriguing about this scenario is that most of the people involved in it know that it’s a bad way to make decisions, but they do it anyways.  If you were to ask them, “do you think that product decisions should be made on what brings the most value to the customer?”  No one would disagree.  So why does this happen?

Usually this comes up when the team has a poor understanding of their customer.  When a team really and truly understands who they are building a product for, these kinds of decisions become much easier.   With a definite user in mind as a guiding principle, it becomes clear whether or not feature X should be done in blue or in red.  Of maybe even that feature X doesn’t even matter than much –  so honestly, who cares what color it is?  Just pick one and move on.

Let me just say here that I love engineers (I even married one!).  Engineers are the ones that are ultimately responsible for building the thing, and they are artisans at heart.  But here is the thing about engineers.  They need to be persuaded that what they are building is being done for good reason.  If they don’t buy into it, they will pull out the “that can’t be done” card, which trumps all other cards on the table.

Also, engineers tend to be data driven, so that is just another reason why it is important that this understanding of the customer be evidence based. It can’t be cooked up in a boardroom with no connection to reality. And it certainly should not be decided after all the decisions have already been made so that you invent a hypothetical persona that happens to need all the features you want to build.

I’m not suggesting that you subject every single decision to rigorous testing. Rather, that you front-load a lot of the work by making sure that you have a strong understanding of who is using your product and why.

Here is the key point. If you find yourself making decisions based on the loudest engineer in the room, it is usually a symptom of a deeper problem. It probably means that the team does not understand the customer well enough to make decisions any other way.

(Photo credit Creative Commons Commercial License: http://bit.ly/1C6BjCz)