16 Sep

Build your own ninja army



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


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


“Anything special happen?”


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


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…


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?


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.


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

22 Jan

Your customers don’t think about you


Your product is amazing.

You’ve been working on it for over a year.  You’ve thought about every feature, every button.  You’ve had interminable meetings with spreadsheets discussing every little nuance of the feature set, product roadmap, marking strategy, and brand alignment.   You’ve stayed late in the office to work on it.  You lie awake at night thinking about it.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, what is your customer thinking about?

I hate to be the one to break this to you but…  There is only one way to say this…

Your customer isn’t thinking about you.

You want to know what they are thinking about?  They are thinking about their own job because they have their own set of interminable meetings to deal with.  They are thinking about their spouse and their kids and the fact that they have to coach little league next weekend and that they really ought to check out that noise their car has been making all week.

On any given day, this is what your customer’s brain looks like.


Notice that your product isn’t in there.

So when you are sitting in one of your interminable meetings and you find yourself saying: “Yes, maybe it’s a little confusing at first, but once they’ve used it a couple of times they will get used to it.”  Remember:

No.  They won’t get used to it because they don’t think about you.

When you find yourself saying: “We’ll just provide some explanatory text to describe what they need to do”.  Remember:

Nope.  They don’t want to read your explanatory text.  They don’t want to think about you.

When you find yourself saying: “We don’t want to provide that functionality because we will cannibalize our existing product lines.”  Remember:

Your customer doesn’t care about your existing product lines.  They care about their own jobs and their own lives.  Unless you are helping them with those things, they won’t care about you.

So rather than like awake at night thinking about your product, I have a suggestion for a more productive use of your insomnia.  Try thinking about what your customer is thinking about.  Because knowing that is the trick to getting them to think about you.

06 Jan

The simple trick to delighting your customers

I don’t mean to brag but I give awesome gifts.

For example, here is what I gave my husband this year for Christmas.


No it’s not the plane (although I’m sure he would love that too), but flying lessons.

This isn’t what he asked for for Christmas.  Not at all.  When I asked him for his Santa list he mentioned that he needed some new shirts, and maybe an art piece that he saw a while back that he really liked.  He never said anything about flying – but that was his favorite gift this year.  How did I know that he would like it?  Shouldn’t I just have given him what he asked for?

Amazing gifts don’t have to be expensive.  Fifteen years ago, for my mother-in-law’s birthday, a bunch of us got together at her cottage and played “Happy Birthday To You” on kazoos, recorders, and Dollar Store tambourines.  She still talks about it to this day as the most amazing birthday gift ever.  “It showed that you know me so well!”  she said.

Therein is the secret to giving amazing gifts.

Know the person really well.

If you get that part right, I guarantee that you will naturally know what things will make them happy.

How do you get to know someone really well?  It’s so simple I’m almost embarrassed to spell it out:

  1. Talk to them
  2. Notice things about them that they might not mention out loud.

When it comes to customer experience, the product designers I work with try very hard to figure out the best way to delight customers.  One common strategy is to simply ask them “What would make you really happy?”.

While this approach is not bad (and a darn sight better than not talking to them at all), it is a pale imitation for simply knowing your customers really well. 

Like the best gifts, delighting your customers doesn’t have to be expensive to have impact.  One of the best examples of a customer delighter is this compelling confirmation email from CD Baby which informs you that  “Our world-renowned packing specialist lit a local artisan candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.”

Total cost of development?  20 minutes and zero dollars.

They simply knew their customers well enough to realize that they would appreciate something more whimsical than the usual “Thank you for your order, let us know if it doesn’t arrive” email.  That single email has become famous since it was originally written over 10 years ago and it earned them legions of loyal fans.

So go ahead and ask your customers what they want for their Santa list, but don’t underestimate the value of getting to know them.

How do you get to know your customers really well?  It’s not that complicated really.

  1. Talk to them
  2. Notice things about them that they might not mention out loud.

This is much harder than simply asking them, but likely to be much more successful.

Customers after all, are people too.  


Photo Credit: Stefano Mortellaro  Creative Commons Commercial license

25 Nov

Customers are Smarter Than You Think


I don’t know why the hipsters accepted a nerd like me into their social circle but they did.

As a young woman in my twenties I found myself regularly going out to clubs with a set of stylish young things despite the fact that my presence significantly brought down the cool quotient.  One of the women in the group always wore cute little strappy sandaled high heels, no matter what the weather.   I live in Canada, so weather is no minor consideration in February.

“Ooooooo…. I’m so cold!”  She would squeal and shiver, hugging herself.  Inevitably, some guy would come around and offer her his coat, or sometimes wrap his arms around her comfortingly.

I just thought she needed some solid, practical advice on footwear.

“You know what you should do?” I ventured helpfully, “You should really get these Sorel boots.  They keep you totally warm even in -35 weather!” (that’s -31 F for you Farenheit folks).  She stared blankly at me from under the arms of some suave, bearded hipster in a trucker baseball cap.

I was truly mystified.  Why on earth would she wear shoes like that in the winter?

We repeated this conversation about 6 times before she finally firmly pulled me aside and said “F*** off with the boots already, OK?!?”

It was then that I finally clued into the fact that she knew exactly what she was doing.

I was under the mistaken impression that she was behaving irrationally or needed some information about sensible shoe choices.  Like it somehow wasn’t obvious that wearing open-toed sandals in a blizzard was not the optimal choice for keeping warm.

It was however, the perfectly rational choice for what she was trying to do.


I have this experience when interviewing customers all the time. 

We often enter into interviews thinking that the customer needs to be educated, or perhaps is just not very intelligent.  It is not unusual for me to hear from clients (especially from the engineering team) “Our users are stupid”.

However, we usually find that customers are behaving perfectly rationally and intelligently.  They just have a different frame of reference, and different goals than we expect them to.

A while ago, I conducted some interviews in which we asked customers about how they use certain security features.  Surprisingly, almost nobody used the security features the way they were supposed to.

Our first thought was that perhaps they didn’t understand the benefits of the added security and the audit trail.

But they did.

Then we thought, perhaps they just didn’t understand how to use the darn thing.

But they did.

Finally, we asked them why they did it the way they did and they said that it was basically too much of a hassle, and it didn’t provide them with enough benefit.  The security benefit was to protect them against some hypothetical threat at some point in the future, but in the meantime, they were under the gun to get their work done quickly.  Doing things the quick and less secure way seemed like the sensible thing to do.

While we were trying to give them the sensible shoes, they were just trying to snag the suave hipster (and keep their boss happy).

When you suspect your customers of behaving stupidly, you should stop and make sure that you understand their frame of reference. 

Customers are smarter than you think.

Photo Credit:  http://www.spera.de/  (pretty awesome shoes too)

13 Nov

It’s 3am. Do you know where your research data is?


I have a confession.

Early in my career many years ago, I was conducting some internal stakeholder interviews at a large company.  As usual, I assured the interviewee that her remarks would be kept anonymous.  Feeling at ease, she let loose with a very open critique about the product direction, using some um…. colorful language.

I kept my promise to her and presented the results without revealing her identity.  I never told anyone about what she said or where those comments came from.  However, the document that held my interview notes was called Jane_Doe_Interview and it was stored on an internal shared directory.

What I didn’t realize was that the company had an internal knowledge base search, which looked through all the shared directories.  When you searched for her name, that document was one of the first results, which revealed her comments in all their colorful glory to anyone who cared to look for it.

People found it.  They weren’t happy.  Jane Doe wasn’t happy.  I was mortified.

File that one under “hall of shame”.

To be fair, I’m in prestigious company.

These days it seems like a new data breach is in the news every other week.  JP Morgan Chase suffered a data breach at an estimated cost of $250 million.  The Ashley Madison leak destroyed a few lives.    The US government, which uses biometric fingerprint data to authenticate employees, had 5.6 million fingerprints stolen.  Now all federal employees need to change their fingerprints.  Or maybe that’s just a rumour.

Every single one of those companies assured their customers (and employees) “We promise to keep your data safe”, and I’m sure that they had every intention of keeping their promise.  Ah, if only good intentions were enough to protect your data!

When dealing with customer research data, you need to take concrete steps to protect the identity of your research participants.  It might not seem like the stakes are high, but they can be, and data breaches happen all the time.

Your guiding principle to protecting your customer data is: keep the data and any identifying information separate.

Here’s what it means in practice:

  • The customer’s name, employer, contact information, location is not kept in the interview notes.  If it appears in the notes, remove it through redaction (cover it with a black box), or just plain remove it.  That information is usually not important in the analysis.
  • Instead, refer to your participants by number in your notes.   John Smith becomes “Participant 1”.
  • If you DO redact information from a document, make sure that you use a proper redaction tool.  That means you have to convert the document to PDF format, and use Adobe Acrobat, Nuance Power PDF or another PDF tool to perform the redaction.  If you just draw a black box over the text, a text search will still find it.  Seriously, the US Department of Defense got egg on their face for making that mistake.  Put that in their hall of shame.
  • There are certain situations when you DO need to know the names of participants.  For example, when I’m doing my analysis, I like to have the names visible because it’s easier for me to remember each interview “oh yeah, Kim was the one with problem X”.  If that’s the case, print out the document and hand write their names on the hard copy (sorry trees).
  • Alternatively, if you absolutely need to have names of people recorded, have it in one document and create a table with a column for the participant name, and a column for participant ID number, so that you create a mapping of name to participant ID.  Then password protect that sucker and give that password only to people who really need it.
  • If you share the password, don’t email the document with the password in the same email.  Send the password by text, or call the person with the password.
  • If the information you are dealing with is in any way sensitive, as soon as you no longer need the identifying information, delete it!  Don’t leave it hanging around, waiting to be discovered.  At the very least, delete the document that contains the mapping.

Notice there is no fancy technology at play here.  No cryptography, no certificates,  no super secure spy devices.  Just some simple, practical techniques that won’t cost you a dime. 

So now you have no excuse for not delivering on your good intentions.

Photo Credit:  Nick Carter (Creative Commons Commercial License)