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

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! 

23 Feb

What are you afraid of?

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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

22 Jan

Your customers don’t think about you

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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.

brainInfographic-01

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.

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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

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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.

LogicalChoice_shoes-01

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)

30 Sep

Are you putting lipstick on a demon?

There is no customer service (2)

Like most middle aged people, I firmly believe that the only movies worth watching are those that came out in my youth.

With this in mind, I settled down for a cozy movie night of “Ghostbusters” with my husband last weekend.  (For you young ‘uns out there, Ghostbusters is a movie that Bill Murray made before “Lost in Translation” and “Grand Budapest Hotel”.)  It is about three ghost scientists, who save New York City from a ghost apocalypse at the hands of a gargantuan Marshmallow Man.  It’s funny.  Trust me.

In it, Bill Murray’s romantic interest Dana, becomes possessed by an ancient Babylonian demon called Zuul.  Murray repeatedly tries to communicate with Dana but she invariably responds, in a creepy demon voice, “There is no Dana.  Only Zuul!”.

onlyZuul_2

Do you ever feel that way talking to a company?  When you first meet them, they seem nice enough.  Charming even.  But when you try to communicate with them about a problem, all of sudden they turn into someone else.   How many times have we heard “Please hold, your call is important to us” or  “I’m sorry ma’am, there is nothing I can do”.  It’s like they were possessed or something.

Really, they would be being more honest if they just said: “There is no customer service.  Only ZUUL!!”  But in a creepy demonic voice, instead of the slightly bored drone that we have come to know and hate.

Jim Rembuch from Beyond Morale says “Customer Experience is the company culture coming through“.  In other words, no matter how hard you work to fix the outer experience, if you are still the demon Zuul deep down, your customers won’t be fooled.

You can’t hide who you really are.

Refreshing your brand, making a nicer looking website, or updating your user interface to be more modern, are all very worthwhile things.  However, you should ask yourself, deep down, does your company actually care about your customers’ experience (and empower your employees to help them)?

In other words, are you just dressing up Dana in a pretty dress, or are you really, in your heart of hearts, Zuul?

(Photo credit: Shutterstock | Michael Jung)

18 Sep

A story is worth a thousand graphs

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Joey was a happy and healthy eight year old boy with lots of friends.  One day, his buddy was over for a game of Minecraft and a sleepover when all of a sudden, a giggle fit turned into choking sounds.  Joey turned to his mother and gasped “Mom, I can’t breathe!”

His mom grabbed him, threw him in the car, and raced off to the nearest emergency room.  When she got there she parked in the ambulance zone because Joey was starting to turn blue and she wasn’t able to carry him in without help.  “I thought he was going to die right in front of me” she said.

Let me pause here and ask you a question.

Do you want to find out what happens next?  

I bet you do.

This is because your brain is hardwired to want to know what happens next in a story.  That is a profound part of what makes us human.

Scheherazade knew this important detail about people when she always ended her stories with a cliff hanger for the Persian king – so that he let her live for another day.  As a result, the rest of us got a collection of stories of those 1001 nights (well not really, but it makes for a good story).

Stories move people in ways that facts and figures don’t.  Stories will stay with you far longer than a statistic.  Politicians know this.  That is why they talk about “Joe the Plumber” or “Mary from Milwaukee” in their stump speeches rather than focus on statistics.  The power of stories are why a picture of a drowned toddler on a Turkish beach prompted more action from the international community than innumerable people telling us that thousands of children die every day because of the conflicts in the Middle East.   A thousand dead children is a statistic.  A single drowned toddler is a tragedy.

Customer research has to do the same thing.   It has to tell the story of your customers.  That’s why Customer Journey Maps are such a powerful tool for getting the organization aligned around what their customers are experiencing.  It remains my favorite go-to-tool for getting everyone from the executive level to the tech support agent on the same page about what it’s like to be a customer.

Whenever I use other research tools like surveys, social media listening, or usability tests, I always have to work hard to craft a customer story from that data.  Because I know from bitter experience that without a story to frame the research results, the research gets shelved.

When I started as a starry-eyed people data nerd, I thought that by doing research and collecting data, the data would “speak for itself” and persuade people to make evidence based decisions.

Wrong.   Here’s what usually happened instead.

A sales person would pipe up with a story “from the field” and that story become the single data point that team would rally around.  “We need to help people like Bob the Builder!” they would announce.

But… but… my charts?  Anyone?

Sound familiar?

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That’s what makes Customer Journey interviews so powerful.  By interviewing a relatively small number of customers, you can create an aggregate story that is representative of the collective experience.  It’s a great way to package customer data because it is truly data driven, but it is inherently in the form that decision makers will immediately understand, remember, and be compelled to act on.

Oh, you must be wondering what happened to poor Joey.

Thanks to his mom’s quick actions, he pulled through his crisis.  It turned out to be a suddenly developed allergy.  He is now recovered and healthy again, as long as he avoids that particular allergen.

Do you feel better now?   I know I do.  Everyone loves a happy ending.

(Photo credits: Shutterstock | Matt GibsongStock-studio)