Archive for the ‘Customers Are Talking’ Category

The graph is nice, but what are you hearing?

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

I’ve been working with a client company and looking deeply into their customer calls to find patterns around why people call, how CSRs handle calls, and what issues customers are having with the company’s products and services.

I was sitting down recently with one of the directors here at the client and we were talking about handle times – how long it takes for a customer’s issue to be resolved over the phone. I talked about some of the analysis we had done on certain scenarios, and shared the statistics we had generated. He looked at them, nodded his head, and turned to me.

“What are you hearing?” he said. In other words, the graphs were fine and useful, but the proof points were in the actual customer dialogues.

Similarly, I did a small analysis on reps proposing to save customers money. In a conference call today, the senior customer service team looked at the graphs, and then the VP asked the leaders to listen to sample calls I’d identified where reps had used this phraseology.

In short: the summarized data lays out the story, but the raw customer stories make it real. Conversely, drawing conclusions from graphs and charts disconnected from the ground-level information is dangerous. [See this interesting Michael Schrage post on the dangers of innumeracy among businesspeople.]

You can’t just go completely the other way, either. That’s the “Undercover Boss” phenomenon – whatever the CEO personally experiences is automatically valid and actionable, regardless of what broader patterns are out there to be discovered. The best approach is a respectful balance of both – analytics and anecdotics. “Trust but validate,” perhaps.

Related post:
Why “Undercover Boss”’s drama is a bad sign for business

Customers are talking: the complex consumer “buyer”

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

B2B salespeople are familiar with the concept of the “buying center” – a group of people responsible for reviewing, analyzing and recommending purchases. The best salespeople cultivate relationships with lots of important folks at the client. They know that focusing on a single decisionmaker is a prescription for a lost sale. (Yet the “decisionmaker” myth persists. Salesperson: “Did a product demo with XYZ corp today.” Boss: “Great. Did you talk to the decisionmaker?”)

Consumer purchases don’t have a buying center, do they? Well, I did a project last year that involved trying to understand why people calling into a telesales center didn’t end up buying anything. The most frequent reason for them saying no? “I need to talk about it with my spouse/mother/sister.” They couldn’t make a decision without the concurrence of someone else.

This has implications for consumer sales of any significant size. Consumer sales channels – especially virtual channels like call centers and websites – are focused on individuals, not groups. They don’t have any easy way of involving that other person who needs to say yes. This was the puzzle my client faced.

Perhaps it’s too complex for consumer marketers to worry about. But by ignoring the buying center, they run the risk that their “buyer” loses his/her energy and commitment between the time they are ready to say yes and the time they get the go-ahead from that other person. That equals lost sales, and lost sales are expensive.

Customers are talking: here comes “Broadcast Shopping”

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

This week Doc Searls posted on an idea called “Personal RFP.” In this model, people wishing to buy a product would be able to put together an open “request for proposal” – essentially, a specification for what they want to buy, including budget, and solicit bids from suppliers wanting to sell it to them. [Nothing even approximately like this exists today, except perhaps Priceline, the reverse-auction travel broker, which is full of compromises to the Personal RFP model.]

Scott Adams of “Dilbert” fame made a similar proposal, and he created a catchy name for this type of service. He called it “Broadcast Shopping,” and described it like this:

The standard shopping model needs to be reversed. Instead of the shopper acting as hunter, and the product hiding as prey, you should be able to describe in your own words what sort of thing you are looking for, and the vendors should use those footprints to hunt you down and make their pitch.

For example, let’s say you’re looking for new patio furniture. The words you might use to describe your needs would be useless for Google. You might say, for example, “I want something that goes with a Mediterranean home. It will be sitting on stained concrete that is sort of amber colored. It needs to be easy to clean because the birds will be all over it. And I’m on a budget.”

Your description would be broadcast to all patio furniture makers, and those who believe they have good solutions could contact you, preferably by leaving comments on the web page where you posted your needs. You could easily ignore any robotic spam responses and consider only the personalized responses that include pictures.

This is something kind of revolutionary. “Customers are talking” has meant, by and large, customers responding and reacting to what companies do to them. Companies release a product, change a service, or make a promise, and customers, through their stories, say what they think about that. Those stories influence other buyers, competitors, regulators, and (hopefully) the company itself.

“Broadcast Shopping” is talking, too, but it’s active, not reactive. The customer sets the agenda, and companies respond.

In Searls’ terms, it’s a type of “Vendor Relationship Management” system, as opposed to the Customer Relationship Management systems that many companies utilize today to help them sell and service customers.

There are many profound implications of broadcast shopping. One that comes to mind immediately is this: it will greatly reduce the benefit companies get from distribution scale. If I am asking people to supply me, anyone can respond. Today, I have to seek out suppliers, and the bigger they are, the easier (by and large) they are to find.

Using Adams’ example, a small provider of patio furniture, who could provide a set meeting his specifications, would be on par with Wal-Mart from a distribution standpoint – they each could respond to the Personal RFP.

Broadcast Shopping also undermines traditional branding. Because any company could respond to a customer request, many choices are available, along with information that allows customers to evaluate the proposals independent of the brand identity of the product.

Broadcast Shopping doesn’t exist yet. But Searls is convinced it will, and soon. He writes:

All this is not only do-able, but inevitable….

Google should be interested because Advertising in Reverse, or Broadcast Shopping (a term I love, by the way), will either undermine or replace the company’s standing business model (which pays for all those freebies we enjoy).

Microsoft should be interested because this could give them something Google doesn’t have yet.

Yahoo should be interested because they need something new that’s a winning idea. Amazon and eBay should be interested because they’re already in that business, though in a silo’d way.

Oracle should be interested because it will sell more databases and Sun gear.

Apple should be interested because it’s one more area where they can push for new standards on which the range of innovation goes through the roof.

Every retailer and intermediary should be interested because the promise of the Net for buyers is not an infinite variety of closed silos, but a truly open marketplace where any buyer can do business with any seller — and on the buyer’s terms and not just the seller’s.

How B2B customers talk

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Some years ago, our company supplied billing services for a mid-sized telecom provider. It was old technology, and we were very interested in migrating them over to a new platform we’d just begun to offer. They were referenceable and complimentary of our work with them. The IT group, our liaison, was happy to set up a meeting with the various groups that would be involved in a decision to change platforms.

At that meeting we learned the other groups didn’t hold us in such high esteem. Not only were they not ready to migrate, they had a list of issues with our current system they wanted fixed. And while we were there, they let us in on a lot of other ideas they had about what we could do better, ideas they had clearly been storing up for years.

We (me included – I headed the group that managed customer satisfaction) had made a big error – we had mistaken good feedback from our direct customer, the IT group, for good feedback from the whole user base.

When B2B customers talk, it’s a lot different from how consumers talk. It’s not uncommon to have a B2B product used by hundreds or thousands of employees in a single company, spread across multiple departments and geographies. “How are we doing?” in this case is a much harder question to answer. Weekly status meetings and yearly customer surveys sent to a handful of people will not let you know whether the company as a whole likes and values what you do for it – or whether there are pockets of dissatisfaction that could derail your strategic initiatives with this customer.

Don’t get seduced by the viewpoints of the people you deal with every day. It’s the people in the field, who use the product, who aren’t saying anything aloud – they are the customer you need to listen to.

Vendors Are Talking: Grocer is “not going to let someone steal my customer”

Friday, October 16th, 2009

Language, especially spoken language, is very revealing when it comes to someone’s values. This is why corporate executives are subjected to media training to keep them on message while speaking in public – meaning, of course, to appear to say something while not really saying anything.

Sometimes, however, executives defy their training and say what they’re really feeling. Let’s parse this recent statement from Stater Bros. CEO Jack Brown, from an interview as quoted in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal article concerns grocers who had cultivated a premium image, now feeling forced to cut prices to retain customers who are considering trading down to discount grocers:

We are scraping the bottom on prices. I’m not going to let somebody steal my customer, because when this (recession) is all over, I don’t want to go looking for my customer.

Brown’s words are property words. It’s akin to saying: “I’m not going to let someone steal my bike, because when this is all over, I don’t want to go looking for my bike.” Customer = his property. (You can’t get any less VRM than that.)

I’ve been reading the new book “Collaboration” by Morten Hansen, and he writes that executives who successfully collaborate practice what he calls “T-shaped management”: they manage down (their line responsibilities) and across (collaborative projects across the company). This may seem obvious, but, as pointed out in the 2008 book “Senior Leadership Teams,” senior managers are often promoted because of their ability to deliver results from their groups, not for being good at collaboration.

I’m more interested in interactions between companies and customers than within companies. Yet Hansen’s “T-shaped” concept also applies, I think, to succeeding in being a customer-centric company. An executive must understand the needs of the company (the vertical line of the T), and identify with the needs of customers (the horizontal line). She must balance both.

It probably goes without saying that getting angry for people “stealing” your customers, or the inconvenience of “going looking” for them, is focusing completely on the company and not at all on the customer. It’s I-shaped, not T-shaped, practice. And for a grocer, perhaps the ultimate consumer company, it’s reveals some old-school attitudes that won’t work well in the future.

Related posts:

Ford uses real customer stories as centerpiece of new ad campaign

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

I’m convinced that authentic customer stories are the best way to convey the values and benefits of a product to others, so I paid attention when I read in today’s Wall Street Journal that Ford is using customer stories as the basis for their latest ad campaign. The Journal writes:

Starting Monday, Ford is launching a new chapter of its “Drive one” campaign, featuring 15-second spots using real customers talking about the “cool” features of their new Fords. It comes as the car maker plans to boost its fourth-quarter ad budget 10% from a year ago.

“It’s all about what real customers are saying,” said Matt VanDyke, Ford’s director of marketing communications. Ford will air 30 to 40 spots over the next 26 weeks that have a grainy, home-video feel. Mr. VanDyke said they are meant to showcase owners’ testimonials as “believable, honest and authentic.”

We’ll have to wait and see whether a “grainy, home-video feel” will convey authenticity or something else, but a move by a carmaker away from geek-speak to human-speak can’t help but be an improvement.

As far as stories go, the rawer the better in my mind. Take this example (previously blogged about here). The NFL, as part of its Super Bowl promos, solicited stories from its players and selected one to be featured during Super Sunday. Here’s the final video:

The NFL, back in 2007, also uploaded all the initial stories, told in the first person, directly to the camera, with no cutting, embellishing or actors impersonating college coaches. The polished ad is funnier and more creative. But the original is more authentic, and better, in my mind. (You’ll have to take my word for it on that account, as the has inexplicably removed those videos from its website.)

Related posts:
Super Bowl stories

Customers Are Talking: In Praise of “Customer-Oriented Defiance”

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Behind many great customer-service stories is a front-line person who went outside standard operating procedure to solve a customer problem. Now this practice has its own name: Customer-Oriented Defiance.

In “Customer-Oriented Defiance [COD]: Exploring Righteous, Sacrficing and Sneaky Behaviours,” co-authors Cheryl Leo and Rebekah Bennett of the Queensland (Australia) University of Technology comb existing sources and do first-hand research of their own to flesh out the phenomenon. Leo and Bennett show that it is not a completely altruistic practice, nor always (or even primarily) beneficial to the companies involved.

Yet it’s clear from reading this paper, and backed up by my experience, that exceptional customer service doesn’t happen without front-liners (the most vulnerable staff in the company, the least paid, often the least respected) stepping out and taking some personal risk by addressing a customer problem in a non-standard way.

In the past, management has been able to avert its eyes and allow this to happen without explicitly sanctioning it (a pretty shameful practice when you get right down to it). But, with auditing/control technology on the rise, it will be harder for COD to occur without a paper trail, increasing the risk that stepping outside the lines, even “righteously,” will be caught and punished. (See this post on the benefits of lighter access-control policies.)

Which means that exceptional customer service will become even rarer than it now is – unless leaders recognize that some processes are art rather than science, including customer-service processes, and provide lighter constraints that reflect the values of the business, the worth of the customer and a respect for the judgment of the front-line employee.

After all, just because you can audit and control something, doesn’t mean you should.

Related posts:
Processes as art & science
Carnival of Trust (the benefits of lighter access-control policies)

(Thanks to Arie Goldshlager for pointing out this research.)

Offshoring telesales reduces close rates – why?

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

I’ve heard from several friends in call center operations that outsourcing inbound telesales to the Philippines has resulted in close rates below expectations. In at least one case that I know of, a company is re-establishing an internal sales center to try to get to the root of why telesales is harder to offshore than customer care.

After listening to hundreds of sales calls and care calls and helping companies find actionable patterns in them, I’ve got some opinions on the subject.

1) Sales is harder to script than care
– a care call is bounded by the product or service the customer has bought. There’s only so much that can go wrong, and most/all those scenarios are documented and can be scripted into the CRM system. Sales calls are open-ended; they can go anywhere, and can veer off track at any moment. Will the prospect complain about the price? Will they bring up a competitor you’ve never heard from? Any left turn a prospect makes can cause an offshored rep, already managing language complexity and reduced empathy, to panic or lose his place (see “confusion kills sales,” below).

2) It’s easier for a prospect to give up than a customer - anyone who has made a call through an offshored center knows that it’s more difficult to communicate with someone who’s from a different culture, with a different accent and familiar with different figures of speech. That difficulty can breed frustration. A current customer with a problem is more inclined to persevere through the frustration, in order to solve her problem, than a prospect, who can hang up the phone or say, “No thanks” and be no worse off than she was before.

3) Confusion kills sales -
if your sales process has a number of steps, and/or it has options a customer has to understand and select, the rep or the customer is prone to become confused. And if the rep gets confused, the prospect is soon to follow. My experience listening to and finding patterns in sales calls tells me that confusion is a sales-killer. There are enough negative emotions swirling around the buying process that adding confusion into the mix can tip a sale from Yes to No.

What have your experiences been with offshored telesales? Are there other reasons sales is difficult to outsource?

(If you’re interested in getting a deeper read as to why your telesales operation is undershooting its objectives, we can help.)

(Photo by via Flickr Creative Commons)

Related posts:
Complex sales: it’s all about the negatives

How radical innovation and careful customer listening go together

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

It may be difficult to square my current obsession with Roberto Verganti’s new book “Design-Driven Innovation” – a textbook study of how companies create way-out, game-changing innovations that users could never have dreamed up – and this blog’s focus on customer listening as a tool for improving innovation, customer satisfaction, etc.

But the truth is that these fit together quite nicely. While companies wishing to create the next iPod-like phenomenon may not want to poll their users for ideas, customer listening is a crucial part of making these innovations successful. Here’s an important passage from Verganti’s book:

Executives who have invested in radical innovations of meaning acknowledge that rather than start with user needs, the process goes in the opposite direction: the company proposes a breakthrough vision. Stunningly, Alberto Alessi uses almost the same words as Ernesto Gismondi to illustrate this concept: “Working within the meta-project transcends the creation of an object purely to satisfy function and necessity. Each object represents… a proposal.”

Design-driven firms don’t crowdsource–they make proposals. And here’s where customer listening comes in. Proposals invite responses. And once products – even design-driven products – are released, they continue to evolve based on how and why people end up using them–which can result in them occupying a different market space than originally envisioned.

With Design-Driven Innovation, proposals shouldn’t get universal acclaim–if they are radical enough, the company should expect and welcome some level of rejection and antipathy (see Lenny Bruce reference in this post. But in the feedback they generate, there are seeds of insight. Is the proposal being understood? Are there unexpected uses?

So the techniques we’ve discussed previously in this blog – customer story gathering, finding patterns, devising adjustments to the product/services – are just as suitable for products created through design-driven innovation. In fact, the more radical the vision, the more necessary they may be.

Related posts:
Lenny Bruce was happy with the support of 1/3 his audience
On “Design-Driven Innovation”
Podcast with Roberto Verganti
Innovation moving from initiatives to experiments