How Tearful Interviews can Lead to Happy Customers

“I was terrified. I thought she was going to die in front of me.”

Those were the words of a research participant as she described her experience during a medical crisis with her daughter. Then she burst into tears. As we passed the tissues, we had to grab a few for ourselves.

Rewind a bit.

We were doing a customer journey project for a large Health Care Provider to determine how to improve the customer experience on their website. We had been following the usual protocol for journey mapping: prompting users to tell us about a specific healthcare experience they’d had recently, and then asking them at each step what they did and what they were thinking. But after our first day, we were finding that the interviews were falling a little flat.

To be fair, not every health care journey is dramatic. Some people’s stories were about mundane conditions. “I had this weird thing on my hand, and my wife was bugging me to get it checked out, so I did. The doctor gave me cream, and it went away”, was one story.

But mixed in with the mundane experiences were people who had chronic conditions, or were caregivers for children, spouses, or parents with debilitating diseases, or people who had been diagnosed with cancer. And these conversations had been fairly flat as well.

We thought that if we could just dig a little deeper underneath people’s individual stories, we could produce something truly meaningful for not only our client, but the people sitting with us in the interview rooms.

That’s when we made a simple change to our interview protocol and started asking at each step “And how did you feel at this point?”

Not just “what were you thinking?” or “what information were you looking for?” or “what were you expecting next?”

Just a simple “How did you feel?”

That simple change did two things:

First, it made people open up. It removed some of the artificiality of sitting across the table from each other in a mirrored market research room, and encouraged them to start talking about things they might not have otherwise brought up.

Second, it gave us powerful stories to bring back to the client, which gave them tools to better empathize with the people they were serving. As healthcare providers, these stories helped them deeply understand that their customers were often seeing them during the worst days of their life. Speaking with the client over a year after the project finished, they still remembered, with crystal clarity, the story of the mother whose child almost died. “We talked about the stories throughout the course of the project,” one of our client contacts told me. “There was so much raw humanity to them.” they said.

As part of improving the health care experience, we wanted to know what it felt like to receive a cancer diagnosis after a long journey to many doctors across a spectrum of specialties. We wanted to understand what we could do, in any small way, to help make these Worst Days minutely less horrible, less terrifying, and less out-of-control.

We also realized that not all customer journeys are equal. We still wanted to understand what people’s journeys with strep throat and weird hand rashes looked like, because those were important too. Those journeys told us about the routine issues that we all experience whenever we come into contact with the medical establishment—the frustration of waiting endlessly at urgent care, the annoyance of finding someone who can see you at a time when you can take off from work, the importance of a doctor who listens.

When we completed our interviews at the end of the week, we had an incredibly rich number of stories to draw from—so many, in fact, that we were able to craft a digital strategy that went far beyond what the hospital website would do. We realized that in many ways, we were limiting ourselves by thinking about a website strategy, or even a digital strategy. By connecting with the emotional content of the conversations, we started to think about a customer strategy—one that would be medium-agnostic.

The role of emotion may seem obvious in health care journeys, but we’ve seen that emotion can play into customer journeys in unexpected places. On a recent project for a client who sells enterprise software, we interviewed a customer who had recently gone through a system upgrade experience which affected tens of thousands of users. It did not go well and he was shaken by the experience. “The pressure on our team was incredible. I am never doing that ever again,” he said. Even for this highly technical product, fear, frustration, anger, and trust were significant elements of the customer journey. This is a journey where a customer has ten thousand people angry at him if the product he bought does not perform well, and he could even be out of a job if it gets bad enough. So while the enterprise software industry doesn’t exactly scream “worst day of my life” in the same way that hospitals do, emotion can run high there as well. Careers are at stake.

We need to remember that no matter what they are doing, your customers are human beings, and human beings are driven by emotion.
So try this: Next time you are talking to your customers about their experience, remember to ask them: “How did you feel?”

Photo Credit: Stocksy | Miquel Llonch

A version of this article originally appeared on A List Apart