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