Archive for April, 2009

Don’t forget your “after-call work”

Friday, April 17th, 2009

I’ve been spending time in call centers recently, and they have a concept called “after-call work.” Call-center reps spend their lives on the phone, but depending on their roles they have more or less work to do to close up the current transaction and become available for the next incoming call.

I spend a lot of time on the phone, too, and I have an unfortunate habit of rushing off to the next thing immediately after hanging up. As a result, my call notes might have gaps, I might not have captured an action item, and I won’t have thought through everything I need to do next with that project.

The same thing is true with email–I’ll read it and then move on before I’ve fully digested what’s in there, or written down what I need to do with it. Since I started using the “Getting Things Done” method, it’s become clearer what needs to be done with transactions like emails or phone calls–I need to determine if there’s something to follow up on, and then to file it away or document a to-do as necessary.

As a result, I’m trying to develop an after-call discipline, just like the reps I’ve worked with. The call isn’t over until I’ve reviewed my notes, filled in gaps, thought about next actions, and documented them in my to-do list.

Related post:
Giving myself the “Getting Things Done” treatment

Catalyst #2 – launch new ventures with real customers

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

I posted earlier this week on the new book, “The Catalyst,” but there are a couple of more points I’d like to share before I leave it. The book, by Jeanne Liedtka, Robert Rosen and Robert Wiltbank, investigates the mindset needed to grow new businesses at established companies. It’s highly recommended, especially as a companion piece to McGrath and MacMillan’s “Discovery-Driven Growth,” which tackles the new-business question from a methodological perspective.

The authors assert in “The Catalyst” that successful new businesses should start with addressing a need of a real customer, one who provides a level of commitment to using the product. They call this an “early yes” and illustrate that it helps galvanize support for a fledgling project.

The customer’s commitment is important. Since launch customers have a stake in the project, they take it seriously and provide more focused and useful feedback than prospects would provide:

Demanding an early yes provides a reality check on customers and partners. Importantly, looking for an early yes minimizes the influence of potential customers. Potential customers are a false positive: They act like customers, they look like customers, but they may not be actual customers. We use the word potential in a pejorative sense here. Potential customers may lead you down a primrose path that involves investment on your part, with only the promise of future business that may or may not materialize. To weed these out, the Catalysts place some demands on those who have the privilege of influencing the growth opportunity. They want to influence and be influenced only by actual customers and actual partners.

Vitally, the close working relationship with an actual customer forces the project team to get out of theory and conjecture and get real: “They are able to work around forecasts and predictions, because direct involvement with others gives them much more specific and useful information.”

I’ve seen the problems with building new products around the need of potential customers. In the 1990’s, I was the product manager on a prepaid cellular product (before such a thing even existed). We had an important launch customer (a large market of what is now AT&T). I worked with the design team and customer to come up with specifications, test prototypes, etc. After several months of this effort, we were no closer to getting the customer committed to using the product. Yet they continued to provide feedback and we continued to rework the product in hope of getting them to install and use it in production.

Eventually the customer’s focus moved onto other projects. Our management killed the project, and we put our code on the shelf. A couple of years later, of course, this type of product emerged (from another company) and became very successful.

To this day, I believe the customer’s option (them being a potential customer, not an actual customer) prevented the product from being installed and used, which would have provided critical momentum to help us continue to develop and improve the product, and for the customer to gain revenue from their customers for this new offering.

Related posts:
“Discovery-Driven Growth” – a vital handbook for developing new business
Innovation catalysts view making mistakes as essential to growing new business

Using values: connecting deeply with customers

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

(This is another in a series of posts about gathering & using customer stories via social media. Prior posts are listed at the bottom of this post.)

Last post I talked about using emergent constructs to determine customer values related to a company’s product or service. Values are things customers find value in, don’t find value in, or find negative value in (that is, they buy & use in spite of a characteristic).

Knowing the values that apply across customer segments is a powerful tool for companies. They can use this to architect their services, products, support, etc., to emphasize the values that connect with the customers they want to attract. They can also focus their attention on those customers who share the values that they offer, and ignore customers who have other values.

Companies that understand what their customers value often have very deep connections with those customers, and strong attendant loyalty. Examples like Harley-Davidson, BMW and Apple come to mind.

Startup companies by definition espouse a set of values, often set in place by their founders. At least in part, this is because startups have to make explicit tradeoffs between what they will and won’t do. This address by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, at the recent SxSW Interactive Conference, illustrates the tradeoffs Zappos made:

For established companies, espousing values isn’t so easy. They don’t have the resource scarcity nor the founder’s focus of a startup. But they have a crucial resource most startups don’t–a customer base and history serving it. So, they can tap that base to gather stories and use the emergent construct sensemaking processes set out in the earlier posts in this series.

The story-gathering approach can measure values as the companies and markets change–and as the company’s leadership grows more disconnected from customers and their values, an inevitable result of business growth. Another powerful advantage: story-based values can trace back to the actual stories that influenced them. This is useful for communicating the values and their importance to internal groups and the outside world. “We help our customers save precious time by providing an easy-to-use, intuitive system. For example….[real user story here].”

[A similar type of assessment was described in the recent book "Marketing Metaphoria" by Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman. The Zaltmans use interviews and constructed collages to derive the values (what they call "deep metaphors"), rather than by gathering and looking at stories.]

Prior posts in this series:
Many ways businesses can listen to customers
Are 200 stories more useful than 2,000,000 data points?
Dealing with what customers tell you online

Innovation “Catalysts” view making mistakes as an essential part of the process

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

From The Mistake Bank:


I’ve recently finished a new book, “The Catalyst,” which describes the mindsets of people who’ve successfully built new businesses inside established companies. Renewing organic growth is a difficult task, and “The Catalyst” is a very useful book for anyone working in new business development.

One point that comes out quickly in the book is the necessity to experiment, “fail fast,” learn and iterate. These points were also brought out in another excellent new book, “Discovery-Driven Growth.” I see these two books as companion volumes. Both address growing new businesses within companies. “The Catalyst” focuses on mindset, “Discovery-Driven Growth” describes the methodology.

Here is one of the “Catalysts” profiled in the book discussing mistakes. John Haugh was hired by Mars Inc. and put in charge of growing its specialty chocolate line, Ethel M.

Haugh decided to focus on creating retail “lounges” where customers could buy and enjoy the chocolates, rather than relying on the fiercely-competitive grocery channel. Haugh also carefully listened to lots of voices–customers, suppliers and partners–to learn as much as he could, fast.

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[Haugh] elected to launch with four different kinds of lounges: “We’re not going to go out and have one perfected prototype,” he explained, “because we don’t even know what that would look like.” The team checked in with consumers throughout the design process to determine the best color palettes, types of furniture, and overall ambience for the stores. They also asked suppliers, partners, and the vendors of their chocolate-making equipment for input. Their intent was to refine the new business as they went along:

We’d know within three days if a store was working. Are people coming in, are they sitting where you think they will, are they ordering what you think they will? You know very soon. And we’d test a slightly different design and layout for the next one to open. We did make errors–we knew we would. But we were prepared to react quickly and to fix them.

Indeed, Haugh viewed making mistakes as part of the process:

You know what? You’re going to make a bunch of mistakes. What you want to do is to try and correct them. When you’re younger, you don’t like to make mistakes. You think that’s the thing that is going to knock you off the track. You get a little bit older and get some gray in your hair, and then you realize it’s OK to make mistakes. It’s how you learn the most.

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From The Catalyst: How YOU Can Become an Extraordinary Growth Leader, by Jeanne Liedtka, Robert Rosen, and Robert Wiltbank, published by Crown Business. Reprinted by permission. (c) 2009. All Rights Reserved

Dealing with what customers tell you online

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Earlier this week, I posted on ways businesses can monitor what’s being said about them in various social media outlets. Perhaps in a challenge to myself, I promised a follow-up dealing with what businesses can do with this information. Finally, egged on by Amber and David from Radian6, here it is.

Companies are getting good at quickly responding to, and engaging in, conversations that others start about their products. For example, Amber and David quickly submitted thoughtful, interesting comments to my post. Dell is also very responsive, and so is Comcast. Your company should participate in these conversations as these companies do. You should be authentic and respectful and all that. Many social media consultants can help you do this. I am after something else.

Specifically this: it’s time to find useful, actionable patterns out of those gigabytes of chatter–Tweets, blog posts, comments–you’ve collected about your products, company, customer service from all these sources. And while these snippets may not follow a complete story format (i.e., “this happened, then this, then this”) per se, I treat them as stories and recommend using narrative sensemaking approaches to find the patterns.

For customer narratives, companies I’ve worked with have had success in finding deep customer values within these stories, using an exercise called emergent constructs. [Cynthia Kurtz's free e-book Working With Stories has been a critical resource to me.] By values I mean things customers find value in, or don’t find value in (or even find negative value in).

An example: I worked with a B2B online services company to help them determine what their customers valued/didn’t value in the industry segment the company operated in. We collected 50 or so stories from their customers, and ran the emergent constructs exercise with them to find the important customer values therein. They found that customers really liked responsive, personalized service, but didn’t like suppliers who appeared too small. They also didn’t have enough time so they valued time-savers of any kind. Plus they liked a supplier helping make them smarter, in other words extending their capability. They liked low prices, but were concerned that low price might indicate a supplier that wasn’t “industrial strength.”

These values, as you can see, aren’t straightforward to deal with. Anything the company did to enhance one value had some counter-effect. Amplifying a set of values might drive a customer segment away entirely. So they had to make hard decisions about things they were going to do and things they would do away with; customers they’d welcome, and customers they’d turn down. Once these difficult decisions were made, however, executing the plan wasn’t that difficult, and they could do it with confidence, given that they had a deep understanding of how customers really felt, grounded in the actual stories they told.

Sensemaking exercises like creating emergent constructs involve groups of people reading stories, answering questions, collaborating on meanings. Therefore, it’s difficult to do them with thousands or millions of transactions. How then do you narrow down the data? One simple way is to sample. Another way is to allow people who review the customer data to flag those that stand out in some way (perhaps using an Eureka button approach). Either way, gathering a bunch of stories and sending them through this process (see yesterday’s post for more on this) can illuminate very complex and nuanced issues for your company, products and brand, as illustrated above.

And once you have a grip on those, you’re prepared to use your existing decisionmaking processes to do something about them, and make real, vital improvements in your products and services.

Related posts:
Reading Between The Lines of Customer Stories
The Blackberry Storm/Twitter Project

Are 200 customer stories more useful than 2,000,000 data points?

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

I’m wrestling with this question right now. I’ve completed several projects that involved collecting, reviewing and working with collections of customer stories to help companies in telesales, market positioning and strategic planning. When I talk to larger companies, inevitably they point to an industrial-strength IT platform they’ve installed that collects & interprets thousands or millions of interactions. “See what we’re doing?” they say. “We are looking at millions of data points. So there’s nothing more you can do for us.”

My discussions with these companies won’t go anywhere if I can’t demonstrate to them that there is a distinct difference between the data mining they’re doing today and this more hand-crafted approach I’m proposing.

So I’m laying out some important distinctions between story work and data mining.

1) My approach (and others’) is rooted in customer narratives, not in numbers.

2) With the narrative-based approach, an essential aspect is human immersion in the individual customer stories. This means a real person reading transcripts, listening to recordings, etc., to experience as fully as possible what’s going on in the moment. In customer encounters, hesitations, stammers, changes, long pauses, laughs, interruptions are not noise–they are part of the story. Removing these is at least sterilizing and at worst misleading. [Even rudimentary, supposedly machine-readable stories such as Tweets can be easily misinterpreted.]

3) This human interactor helps catalyze* or identify unusual or possibly interesting patterns, acting as a naive observer (or customer proxy), outside the company. Excerpts that may illustrate patterns are excerpted and used in sensemaking described below. [Sensemaking, in a somewhat different context, is discussed in this Sloan Business Review article.] Data items related to the stories are also collected and the interactor creates graphical representations of the data, some of which are potentially interesting and insightful.

4) The catalyzed information is reviewed and assessed by groups of people inside the company, rather than individuals scanning dashboards and using that data to reinforce their preconceptions. The groups use techniques designed to foster evidence-based collective sensemaking, rather than simply to confirm/refute preexisting hypotheses. The techniques encourage the groups to develop alternate interpretations of the data, an important advantage over numerical data analysis in evaluating customer service, sales, product satisfaction, which have complex aspects that defy reduction to simple dashboard figures.

But what about the limitations of all this human intervention? Isn’t 200 stories too small a data set to a company with millions or tens of millions of customers? My answer, surprisingly, came from a CFO friend. “Gosh,” he said, “after 200 stories, I don’t think you’d find much of anything new.” I agree. If the scope and key questions are defined clearly enough, a sample of a hundred or two hundred can blanket the problem and provide patterns that would equally apply to the remainder of the customer base.

*I first heard the term catalysys used by Cynthia Kurtz to describe this process.

Symbian, a mobile OS, gets a heart

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

I like rooting for the underdog, even if that underdog has an installed base of over 250 million. But when you’ve got competitors like Apple, Google & Blackberry, it’s easy to achieve underdog status.

Which is what makes the Symbian situation so interesting. Bought by Nokia in 2008 and spun out into a nonprofit foundation, Symbian has packaged its code in an open-source release and is counting on a confederation of scrappy, innovative developers and large handset manufacturers (Nokia & others) to hand with their iconic competitors. (The foundation’s blog is here.)

I haven’t taken a look at their code, but from other evidence I’d judge they’re off to a good start. The Symbian.org website is starkly different from the typical mobile web site. It features hand-drawn graphics and a friendly heart-shaped logo. Far from the technocratic, world-domination images of their competitors.

And that’s smart, in my eyes. Apple is here to stay, and Blackberry too. Google is late to the party, but too scary and smart to count out. So it would be easy for another competitor to fold the tent (or compete head-on, as Windows Mobile is doing unsuccessfully). Symbian’s employing a better competitive approach–embracing open source, at the edges and at the core, investing in community and otherwise using the Mozilla playbook. All good stuff and good for the mobile industry.

Now, when will I be able to get one of their phones in the US?

On finally reading “The No Asshole Rule”

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Last week, on a trip to Las Vegas for the Wireless 09 trade show, I finally read Bob Sutton’s book “The No Asshole Rule.” I had occasion to mention this fact to some folks at a happy hour. One intern responded, “I took a class from him at Stanford, and he was amazed that his other book took a year to write and almost nobody read it, while ‘The No Asshole Rule’ was written in three months and that’s the book he’s remembered for.”

I’m not amazed by that fact. Besides the in-your-face title, the asshole culture at work is universally understood and experienced. It’s also rarely if ever confronted–meaning that a book that takes on the subject has a pent-up demand of readers. In other words, “The No Asshole Rule” is perfect in its timing, voice, subject matter, and market need. A hit.

The book is intended to help people recognize when they’re trapped in a toxic culture and escape or cope as necessary, and to help companies justify not hiring certain people with asshole qualities that could create such a toxic culture. But most useful for me was the challenge to confront my inner asshole.

I think most people harbor one of these in their psyche. Perhaps it only comes out when your kid wakes you up at 5:30am and asks if it’s OK for him to go downstairs and play Nintendo, or when you get a telemarketing call during dinner. For others (me included), it’s more easily accessed. And when I got into the corporate world, the culture of advancement helped bring it out more and more often, until I was a senior manager, when I was probably more than 50% asshole (my employees and colleagues might raise that number a bit).

Given that, I probably couldn’t have had a better break than, as happened a few years ago, to leave the corporate world behind and become a sole practitioner. It is very very difficult to make a living being an asshole when you are a lone contributor working for companies. You have to be humble, do good work, and make sure the client likes what you have done. That is the oxygen for this business. Treating clients poorly is a recipe for oblivion. I may not make as much money as I did a few years ago, but I think I’m a nicer person for it.

So perhaps I read the book at the perfect time. At any rate, “The No Asshole Rule” helped me understand the true cost of assholism, and how to recognize it and treat it in myself.

Customers are talking: many ways small businesses can listen

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

I subscribe to Duct Tape Marketing’s RSS feed because, even though it occasionally tips toward the “carnival barker” end of the Bloggers’ Continuum, it regularly delivers important posts that I find value in.

And so it was today, when John Jantsch (DTM’s author) posted “Listening in a Digital Age.” Jantsch discussed how listening to customers has gotten more complicated since the internet showed up (true), and offered a set of tools to help manage the flow (becoming a torrent) of online feedback.

He mentioned Google Alerts and Twitter Search (free), and Buzzlogic, Radian6 and other paid listening tools. (He didn’t mention CoTweet; perhaps he hasn’t tried it yet.)

A good follow up on this post, in my opinion, could be to talk about how businesses should deal with what they learn from these listening sessions. In fact, that may be something I take a shot at soon.