09 Dec

Ten Letters For The President

As an avid podcast listener, one of my favorites is 99 Percent Invisible.  It’s about “all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about.”  As someone who works in B2B tech, there is nothing I love more than thinking about things people don’t think about.

A recent favorite of mine was, “Ten Letters for the President.”  This episode explains how and why President Obama reads ten letters each day from among the tens of thousands received at the White House.

It’s a pretty cool idea, and one which I think could be used in similar fashion in gathering customer insights. Here’s how:

  1. They have a process.

    The White House receives 40,000 letters and/or emails a day. Obama wants to read just ten.So, in addition to the necessary security and logistical hurdles involved, they’ve come up with an approach that provides him with a representative sample. Different ages, opinions, geographies and writing styles. And a mix of both positive and negative comments – everything.Large organizations (and even midsize ones) also receive lots of feedback: emails to product managers, conversations with sales teams, customer call center support tickets, etc. But, unlike the White House, they often lack processes for “trickling up” the everyday voice of the customer to the executive level.
  2. They are story-based.

    It would be easier – and more statistically significant – to simply distill the letters and provide the president with data regarding the themes of the day. But that would remove all the juice and much of the meaning.These letters, I think, do more to keep me in touch with whats going on around the country than just about anything else, says the president. “Some of them are funny. Some of them are angry. A lot of them are sad or frustrated about their current situation.”While the aggregating of customer feedback is very important, nothing allows you to empathize with the people you serve better than the stories they share of their experience with your product.
  3. They are responded to.Obama doesn’t respond to every letter, just some. In these he takes a personal interest, jotting down notes in the margins for use in his reply.Needless to say, the impact of a personal and direct response from the president – rather than the standard, “your call is important to us blah blah” – is tremendous.

    How about your organization? How do you think your customers would feel if they received a personal email response from the CEO of what to them is a big, faceless corporation? What kind of impression do you think that would make? (Hint: The answer to both of these questions is “fabulous!”)
  4. Their impact is shared.

    Obama uses what he learns from these letters as a jumping off point for keeping his staff in touch with the outside world.”I try to remind people – what we do here, what the Supreme Court does, what Congress does – these aren’t just abstractions. These are things that really matter in people’s lives.”Working in a B2B tech organization, it’s also easy to be shielded from the actual users of the things we design and develop. We’re down in the weeds, often stuck inside our organizational silos.

    The direct feedback we receive from the outside goes a long way in breaking through.

So what’s this all mean? Do we give up using quantitative means for aggregating and understanding customer feedback? Not at all. That’s useful and valuable.

That said, if Obama can keep a finger on the pulse of a nation of 320 million people by reading ten letters a day, isn’t there a similar opportunity in your organization?

(Comment on the this post and let me know your thoughts.  Unlike the president, I personally read – and reply to – 100% of those I receive!)

Photocredit: Gilmanshin

29 Nov

3 Big Ideas 4 B2B Product People

Fabien Tiburce, Founder and CEO, Compliantia

Fabien Tiburce is the Founder and CEO of Compliantia, a cloud based B2B retail audit software. If you’ve recently walked into a 7-11 or a UPS Store, you can thank Compliantia for helping to keep your local franchisees up to snuff with the corporate standards.

As Fabien explains, “We help large, multi-unit, franchise-based retailers uphold standards for their franchisees. Standards for service, health and safety, security and more.”

So I asked him what he’d learned in the seven years he’s been running the business. Here’s what he said:

1) Educate first.

One of our “A-ha” moments came after launch. I had been promoting the business based on, “Buy us because we are great and do these things better.” Our blog was little more than a sales pitch.

A friend said, “You’re pushing things down the throats of readers.” So we switched to an entirely educational approach and began blogging about best practices, how to address problems, how to uncover pain points. We tried to walk in our customers’ shoes. Today, even our free demos don’t involve selling anything.

You need to plant seeds. Be selfless. You give and give and one day people want to know more. That’s when they call and that’s when they buy.

2) In product development, look for commonalities.

It’s easy to just react to every bit of customer input you get; there’s a temptation to build in everything that’s ever requested. But you can’t be all things to all people or else you’ll never fit into any one market or provide a valuable solution.

So we look for patterns. We try to find the “lowest common denominator” in terms of what people want and what’s really needed. We also avoid customization for one or two big clients which may satisfy them, but take your product development off course in the process. (Thanks to Jason Fried of Basecamp for that insight!)

3) Act on feedback.

Customers have been trained to not report bugs. First, because they assume that they – not the software – are the cause of problems. And second, because they’ve learned that companies don’t usually respond to problem reports anyway, so why bother?

What we’ve found though – and this is so simple it’s amazing – is that the best way to keep getting feedback, is to act on it. That teaches people to keep doing it. At Compliantia, our philosophy is, “Every door is always open.” Anyone in the company with a telephone or email must listen, interact, respond and communicate with other team members.

It’s a cultural thing. It’s low tech and not expensive. And it doesn’t take special initiatives. But we do it consistently. We listen and act.

Thank you, Fabien! Great stuff.

Of course, my last question to Fabien was the toughest: Star Trek, or Star Wars? Turns out he’s a Star Wars guy. “That’s so hard, but I’m going to go with Star Wars. Jedis and light sabers, you can’t go wrong with that!”

09 Nov

Is There Lipstick On Your Pig?

lipstick-on-a-pig

My daughter, Rachel, is probably the only 12 year-old in the country who knows who Carol Burnett is. 

This is because I believe in properly educating our children, and that means exposing them to the joys of the Muppet Show.  In fact, we own The Complete Muppets, a five-season DVD set that my husband bought for me at ComiCon and that our entire family watches together.

The truth is, the Muppets have always felt like living, breathing characters to me.  It’s easy to forget that they are just pieces of cloth sitting on top of a puppeteer’s arm.

But when I saw one of the guests totally lose it during a romantic number with Miss Piggy, I realized how bizarre it must be to softly caress a stuffed pig while a man stands beneath it sighing and cooing “her” love in a high-pitched piggy voice.

Of course, it takes a ton of work and skill to give the Muppets the feel of real life characters. Jim Henson describes how it took his crew an entire day to film a single, two-minute musical Viking number.

And that’s why The Muppet Show is so hard to replicate. It requires so much more than just the puppets themselves. You need dozens of professionals who are skilled in set design, music, acting, writing and much, much more.

The viewing audience, of course, only sees the end result – singing, dancing Muppets. But there’s much more going on off screen – before, during and after the performance.

It’s the same with software and the quest to provide a great customer experience: It requires much more than just a pretty interface.

Consider this example: For the past decade, WorkDay Systems has been disrupting the boring old world of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Human Resources software. In a world overflowing with unwieldy, hard to use and maintain enterprise systems, WorkDay has been a breath of fresh air.

Do they provide a beautiful interface?  Absolutely.  But that’s just the “Muppet” part.

As a sales manager for WorkDay recently explained to me, “Our competitors try to copy our user interface, but that’s just the surface stuff.  What’s harder to copy is our underlying infrastructure.  What they don’t realize is that a pretty UI built on top of an old and inflexible system will still give your customers a clunky experience.”

WorkDay is eating away at its competitors’ market share by providing a better user experience AND making it easier on the backend for system administrators to manage.

And that’s just one example. Time after time, tech companies look at a successful competitor and assume they can replicate that success by simply copying the other company’s look and feel.  What they don’t seem to realize is that greatness begins beneath the surface and behind the scenes.

So try this.

Begin by considering the workflows that need to be accomplished: Scanning receipts for expense reports; filling in weekly time sheets; tracking overtime; etc.  Think about how people want to do this, not how the system forces them to.  Then consider the overall life cycle of your product: what do people need to do to install, maintain, and upgrade it?

Only then does it make sense to focus on the interface. Because no matter how hard you try, you can’t put lipstick on a pig.

 

Photo credit: Volodymyr Tverdokhlib

12 Oct

Ah yes. One of your earth emotions.

spock-emotion

“Irritating?  Ah yes, one of your earth emotions…”  mused Spock when Captain Kirk accused him of playing an “irritating” game of chess.

However, despite Spock’s detachment from feelings, he doesn’t entirely live up to his anti-emotion rhetoric.  He even allowed himself an enthusiastic shoulder grip and smile  when he discovered that he hadn’t in fact killed his Captain in hand to hand combat. (bonus points if you can name the episode)

Those of us that live in the B2B technology world tend to think of it as being an intensely rational environment.  Purchasing decisions are based on a reasoned analysis of the features, how it integrates into the existing technology stack, how the product roadmap aligns with the internal infrastructure roadmap and so on.  Complex stuff, decided on rationally by very smart people.

And yet, when you actually sit down and talk with the people who make these decisions, and who are responsible for making these systems run, their words are charged with emotion.

Take for example this system administrator discussing a system upgrade: “The stress on my team was unbelievable.  I am never putting us through that again.”  

He felt eviscerated because while he was performing a version upgrade of one of his enterprise systems, he had critical processes that went down for hours at a time.  He and his team had to field angry emails and calls from over 10,000 employees.

Needless to say, he wasn’t really happy with his vendor during that upgrade cycle.

Or this lawyer describing a very useful feature in an electronic documents processing application:  “When I show my lawyer colleagues how to do this, their jaws drop.  They are totally blown away.”

Or this comment discussing common user configurations that need to be done manually:  “I spend hours every week doing this over and over again.  It gets really annoying.  It should take only a few minutes.

On one level, you can look at those comments and notice that they are discussing features.   But that’s only the surface.

What always strikes me is that the way they talk about those features is in the language of emotions.  If you met these people in a social setting, you would perceive them as quite nerdy.  They might even speak Klingon (or at least Esperanto).  But even among the geekiest of the geeks, emotions still play a prominent role in the way they interact with their world.

Emotions are rarely discussed or even acknowledged in the context of B2B technology, which is strange, considering how high-stakes these deals usually are.  

Someone buying a new CRM system for their organization could lose their job if they choose a vendor that can’t deliver.  Or they might have to face an endless stream of angry employees who can’t figure out how to use the expense reporting system they approved, or some of their customers’ livelihoods might be in jeopardy if their data integrity was compromised.

The Canadian government recently rolled out a flawed payroll system which has resulted in over 80,000 people not being paid properly, or at all.  As a result, government employees are losing their homes, or are not able to afford critical medication. Every night,  there are thousands of people that are lying awake, stressed out and losing sleep because of this payroll system.

On the surface, B2B products seem cold and unemotional.  When I say “payroll management system”, the primary emotion it triggers is boredom.  Did your eyes glaze over just now?

We tend to think of even running shoe purchasing decisions as being more imbued with emotion (“Just Do It!”), but really,  what’s the worst that will happen if you buy the wrong shoe?  On the other hand, when a payroll system grinds to a halt, it can have life-changing reverberations for thousands.

Here’s the bottom line:  If you want to provide excellent customer experiences, you have to acknowledge that emotions are what defines that experience.   

Just because your buyers are technical and smart, it doesn’t mean that emotions aren’t part of the picture.

Photo credit: JD Hancock   

16 Sep

Build your own ninja army

lego-samurai

 

In  16th century Japan, times were tough and chaos reigned.  A few regions decided to take matters into their own hands by setting up their own government and getting their own citizens to protect them.

Up until that point, towns often turned to Samurai warriors for protection.  However,  they were expensive, they drew too much attention to themselves, and they were known to be jerks to the peasants.

To top it off, when a Samurai warrior failed in a mission,  they would kill themselves because of the shame, in order to protect their honour.  There goes your investment.

People needed to do things differently.  Enter – the ninjas.

Aside from amazing fighting prowess, ninjas had three main advantages.

First:  Ninjas were originally citizens of the towns they protected and tried to blend into their surroundings disguised as merchants or cleaners.  Contrary to their popular depiction, they rarely wore those all-black catsuits that are synonymous with ninjas today.  Unlike Samurai warriors, you never knew who might be a ninja.

Second:  If ninjas failed in a mission, they just tried again.  None of this self-disembowelment business.  Honour shmonour.  They cared about results.

Third:  They spent a long time practicing and honing their fundamental skills.  If you wanted to be tough, you had to do tough things – like sit under a waterfall of freezing water for hours on end, or run barefoot through the forest.

When your company wants to do customer research, do you take the Samurai approach, or the ninja approach?

I see a lot of companies take the Samurai approach.  They hire some high-priced consultants (cough), do some saber rattling where the term “customer experience” is thrown around a lot, and if it doesn’t quite work out, heads will roll.

Consider instead the ninja approach instead:

Blend in
    Practice the basics
    Keep trying

Blend in

There are a lot of people in your organization that you can leverage to gather customer insights.  For instance:

Customer Service representatives

Sales reps

Professional Services

Pre-Sales engineers

These people can be your Voice of Customer ninja army.  They already blend in with your current business and all they need is a some training on how to do it.  Your customer doesn’t even have to be aware that you are doing anything differently until they start to get better experiences from you.

The key difference of course (and I can’t stress this enough) is that unlike actual ninjas, you would be gathering data on how to better serve your customers instead of, you know, killing them.

Practice the basics

The basics are simply this:  Talk to your customers consistently.

You can do this with actual conversations, with surveys (carefully), or with analytics.  Preferably some combination of all of these.  The secret is to just keep doing it.  You don’t even have to stand under freezing waterfalls – although by all means feel free to try that too.

Keep trying

Not everything you try will work.  That’s OK.  Learn what you can from the experience and try again.  Each time you try, you will get better at it.

Here is the bottom line: Your own employees are your secret weapon.  You can use them to gather insights about your customers and build that consistently into your culture.  


Photo credit:  https://flic.kr/p/9nz5hj  (Creative Commons Commercial license)

A lot of the source for this comes from the “Our Fake History” podcast episode  on ninjas.  Check it out! 

06 Jun

Talk to customers on their schedule, not yours

mother-daughter-photographer-london-scout

When my kids come home from school I always ask “how was your day?”
Any guesses as to the answer I invariably get?

“Fine…”

“Anything special happen?”

“No”

Bonus points if you visualized a pre-teen eye-roll in there as well.

But it’s funny, they actually have plenty to say at other times.

While I was busy writing this newsletter, my son told me all about the “waterworks” in the school yard.  The waterworks are what he calls the elaborate set of water channels he has dug in the mud with his friends at school.   Then my daughter interrupted to educate me about the evolution of various Pokémon creatures (did you know that Charmander evolves into Charmeleon, which evolves into Charizard , which evolves into Mega-Charizard?  Well now you do.  You. are. welcome.).

“I’m busy, don’t bug me” I told them.

An hour later, I was ready to talk to them again, but they had better things to do – like play Pokémon and dig in the mud.

For some reason, they insist on communicating on their own schedule.  It’s most aggravating.  Why won’t they talk when I want them to?

Ever notice how your customers react this way when you try to talk to them?

When your customers try to talk to you, how often do you send them the message “I’m busy – don’t bug me” ?

When you  are ready to talk, how do they react to you?  Do you talk to them only when your end of quarter is looming?  Or when you have a new product initiative that you would like feedback on?  Or when you decide to start up a  Voice of Customer initiative and you ask for their time to provide feedback?  Remember that survey you had pinned your hopes on that no one filled out – except that one really grumpy guy?

When you are ready to talk to your customers, do you get the equivalent of  “Everything is fine. Nothing interesting to tell you about”?

Try this for a change.

Next time your customer reaches out to you with questions or wants to tell you about their problems, trying pausing and actually listening.  Write it down.  Share that information with your colleagues.

I know, I know.  You’re busy.  You’re in middle of launching your next marketing campaign, or working on the business case to present to your executive on that new project, or you are preparing for the alpha release of your product.   But here is the thing, your customers are busy too.  I hate to be the one to break it to you, but they are not waiting breathlessly by the phone, waiting for you to call them and ask them a bunch of questions.  They have their own big projects, campaigns, and presentations to prepare for their bosses just like you do.

Here is the bottom line:  Your company must have some way of being open and receptive to customers on their schedule, not yours.  It just might be your only chance to talk to them.

Any kid can tell you that.

Photographer: London Scout

02 May

How to train your customers to destroy your brand

decipline-copyright-speedkingz

Anyone with toddlers dreads the public meltdown.

You’ve seen us, the harried moms with the kids in tow, just… trying… to get…  the shopping… done.   And then, just as we are coming down the home stretch at the checkout counter, the supermarket has helpfully placed chocolate bars precisely at toddler eye-level.

To the right, Mars bars and KitKat.

To the left, a shopping cart full of broccoli and brussel sprouts.

The escalating requests begin.

Starting with the relatively polite request “can I have a chocolate bar – pleeease?”  and eventually ending in tears and screams “AAAGHHH! I WANT IT!!!!”  And, just to shut the kid up.  We cave.

Ahem.  I mean other mothers cave.  My children are of course perfect angels at all times.

Sometimes, when we (*cough* I mean they) cave too often at the screaming phase, the child eventually learns to skip all the polite preamble stuff and jump straight to the wailing and thrashing.  In effect, the parents have trained their kids to make a public scene, because that is what gets results.

Dumb right?  But companies are training their customers in exactly the same way.

By providing very few ways of letting customers contact them, they give customers little choice but to air their grievances on social media.  Companies don’t like being publicly criticized, so they react very quickly to these kinds of complaints.

Last week I was struggling with my online meeting account shortly before a client meeting.  Try as I might, I couldn’t get the session started successfully.

I searched the help forums and the knowledge base. No help.  I looked for a way to contact customer service, no chat, no email address, no phone number.  Nothing.

With a meeting starting in 20 minutes, I took to Twitter to complain publicly.   It’s the adult white-collar version of the checkout aisle meltdown.  Companies will do anything to get us to just… be… quiet…

Within minutes after my Twitter complaint, I was on the phone with a service representative who resolved my problem in time for my meeting.

I asked the very nice, very competent service agent why they made it so hard to reach customer service on the website, and yet were so responsive once I took to social media.  He seemed embarrassed and suggested that I fill out the customer satisfaction survey to provide this feedback.

And then he laughed.  It was a sad kind of laugh.

Next time I ran into a problem, guess what I did?   They trained me to skip the polite requests and take directly to a public forum, because hey, that’s what gets results.

Here is the bottom line.  Customers will do what gets them results.  If the only way you listen to them is after they’ve publicly complained, you are training them to destroy your brand.  

Give your customers other channels, and easier ways to communicate with you.  Respond to polite, private requests just as quickly as you respond to angry, public ones.  Your customers will be happier, and so will you.

Photographer: Speedkingz

05 Apr

A day like any other

I thought it was going to be a day like any other until I stepped outside the front door and saw this…

april-fools

Now I know what you are thinking – I should have been expecting this on April 1st.

Except that it WASN’T April 1st, it was April 3rd.  My kids had decided to extend the hilarity for  an as-yet undisclosed period of time.

As my seven year old daughter put it, “Pranks are fun every day.”

Why is there is only one day a year dedicated to joy, good-natured pranks, and general goofiness?  That’s not a world that I want to live in.  At least, that’s what I tell myself as I discover plastic bugs in my sock drawer, snakes in the shower, and fake poop in my shoes.  Again.

Why is it that we tend to restrict the good things of life to small constrained periods?  Should you have fun only on April Fool’s Day (and maybe even New Year’s Eve) but be a dour curmudgeon the rest of the year?

We do this with customer experience as well.

Often organizations will launch special research programs to understand their customers.  They will do a Customer Journey Mapping Workshop series, launch a big survey, run a series of intense focus groups, or initiate a special  “service excellence month”.  That’s all good stuff – but what are they doing the rest of the year?  If the results of these projects aren’t baked into the day-to-day operation and culture of your organization, it ultimately has no effect on how your customers are experiencing you.

I am all for special research projects, but if they are not grounded in a daily practice of listening and being attuned to your customers, you might as well save your money and ignore them year-round.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make sure my sugar hasn’t been swapped for salt yet again.

23 Feb

What are you afraid of?

monsterUnderBed_smaller

You know that gnawing in the pit of your stomach when you have to face a difficult conversation, or a difficult truth?

You know the one I mean.

It’s the one that you felt in high school when you asked your friend to “find out if he likes me”, or when you were waiting for your acceptance letter from college and you asked your mom: “you open it for me.  I can’t look”.

It’s that feeling you get when you didn’t hear back after that interview for your dream job, but you can’t quite bring yourself to call them up and ask about it.

Ever notice how that how that feeling accompanies stuff that you care deeply about?  It comes up when there is a possibility of rejection.

Here’s something else about that feeling.

There is an overwhelming compulsion to avoid doing it.  Not only that, when we do address it, we often look to secondary sources of information.

You want your friend to find out if someone likes you.  You want your mom to open your college letter.  You call someone else to ask if your interviewer was dazzled or unimpressed.

But why?  Why would we want to outsource those most important conversations?

The answer of course, is fear.  It is human nature to avoid things that may result in unpleasant feelings: like rejection, or having to tell your boss that maybe this project isn’t such a great idea after all.

Anyone who cares deeply about their product feels this way about their customers.

When many companies want to do customer research,  they start by suggesting a survey, or looking at social media, or reading analyst reports.  Anything it seems, to avoid actually talking to living, breathing customers. 

But here’s what I have learned.  The thing that you are most afraid of is exactly what  you should be doing.  If you are afraid of it, that means it’s important.  If it’s important, you should be addressing it.

Of course, it is much easier to argue about features, or licensing models, or whether the brand color should be blue or magenta.  But those things don’t give you those nasty stomach flip flops do they?   That’s not what’s keeping you up at night is it?  It’s the big questions that do that.

“Does my product solve an actual problem?”

“Are people just buying from us because were are the lesser of two evils?”

“Are we doing this just because it’s the CEO’s pet project?”

“Are our customers really happy with us?”

These are the questions you need answers to.

So if you ever wonder where you should be spending your research dollars, close your eyes and ask yourself: 

What are you most afraid of? 

Photo Credit:  ShutterStock | Dmitry Koksharov

03 Feb

Don’t screw up your first date with your customers

unhappyCouple_smallerImagine you met an intriguing woman online and spent twelves months romancing someone on another continent.

Picture it.  You exchange witty emails, send her attractive pictures of yourself doing interesting and exciting things, and have long phone calls discussing mutual interests and plans for the future.   Then finally, you agree to meet in person.  At significant expense she flies from Australia to New York to meet you.  You are both excited to finally get together.

Wouldn’t it be weird if you didn’t bother to shower and look nice for the first date?

After all this time spent trying to establish a connection and deciding that there might be a future together, why would you fumble something as basic as making a good first impression?

Software vendors often make this mistake with their customers.

A B2B software vendor might spend 12 months wining and dining their prospects.  They show them sexy demos (I’m using a very loose definition of the term “sexy”). They discuss product roadmaps to see if they have a future together.  They offer “good faith” discounts.

Finally, after the customer has dropped a few hundred thousand dollars and arm-wrestled their infamously obstructionist procurement officer to make the purchase, what is the first thing they experience with the product?

An installation nightmare.

INSTALLATION

It is not uncommon for on-premise B2B software to have installations balloon from an estimated one week project to six weeks or even more.  To add insult to injury, the customer is sometimes required to foot the bill for additional professional services costs to boot.

This is the dating equivalent of showing up for the first date with bad breath, food stains on your shirt, and unkempt hair.  And then asking your date to pay for the experience.

Somehow “improve the installation experience” never makes it to the top of development priority lists.  The argument is usually that installation is a one-time event, and is therefore low in priority after the long list of stuff in your feature backlog.

However, that rationale means that you are willing to create a bad, or even a terrible impression as the very first experience your customer has with your product.  This can do tremendous damage to your relationship with them and jeopardize customer renewals or any word-of-mouth business.  This drives up your customer acquisition costs because  your business has to constantly invest in the long wooing cycle of new customers.

First impressions are critical and it is hard to recover from a bad one.

So consider making the installation experience better for your customers. They just might give you a second date.  Or at least recommend you to their friends.

Photo credit: Shutterstock | Creatista, Africa Studio