Posts Tagged ‘customer research’

Really need to learn? Conduct an interview

Monday, November 16th, 2009

headphonesI was inspired by Ford Harding’s post today on cross-selling, most of all by his suggestion of how to educate others in the company about one’s own services, including this idea:

Structure the session as an interview, rather than a presentation. Announce to the participants that they won’t learn anything about the featured practice, unless they ask about it. Then, don’t allow the person seeking to cross sell his service to say anything, except in response to his colleagues questions. If his colleagues aren’t interested or intelligent enough to ask good questions about the service, he is probably wasting his time anyway. This puts the responsibility on the listeners to extract the information they need, keeping them engaged in the conversation.

When I read this, I thought, “Eureka!” Like many, I would like to be a better listener than I am. I was on a call last week and caught myself preparing my next statement instead of listening to what my colleague was saying.

The idea of interviewing struck a chord because of some work I’ve done – twenty or so podcasts and a similar number of in-depth customer interviews. For those, I prepare questions in advance, and listen very carefully while the interview subject is speaking. Frequently, the answers inspire a different line of questioning or a surprising new direction. If I weren’t listening, I wouldn’t detect the change nor be able to adjust my questioning.

When an interview is done, I feel as if I’ve been immersed in the topic, more than engaging in a conversation. Moreover, I have the recording as a keepsake, to refer to again if I want to relive the interview. [My friend Laurie records conference calls and meetings - with prior approval - as a matter of course, so she can relisten later to pick up things she's missed. Another interesting idea.]

I learn far more from an interview than a standard call or presentation. I think Ford is onto something important here; interviewing as a way of learning. What do you think?

(Photo by Mulad via Flickr Creative Commons)

Related posts:
Shop Talk Podcasts
The art of the customer interview

Farmers’ market secret ingredient – community

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Broad Street Market 2I did a project last year with the Broad Street Market, a farmers’ market here in Harrisburg. (Disclosure: I am on the Market’s board of directors.) We were trying to establish some parameters for a strategic plan for the Market. My project was to interview Market customers to understand why and how they valued the Market, and what common issues might be that the strategic plan should address.

I did 60 open-ended interviews, and heard some great stories – for example, a woman in her seventies discussed coming to the Market as a young girl, shopping at a place that used to sell wonderful pears, taking the trolley that ran down 3rd Street. But some of the best stories weren’t explicitly told – they occurred during the interviews.

Perhaps half a dozen times an interview was interrupted while the person I was speaking to greeted a friend who walked by: “Hi, how you doing?” and an embrace. “Let’s get together,” or “See you Saturday.”

And when the board reviewed the stories, a theme emerged: community as an important value. We had expected customers to discuss safety and cleanliness (and they did), the types of vendors (a bit), fresh and local products (yes) or the hours of operation (a lot). But the theme of community, something we hadn’t been looking for, kept coming up. For those customers, the Market was more than just a place to shop. It was a place to meet friends, to stay connected, even to return to after they’d moved out of town.

This is an interesting observation for all brick-and-mortar retailers, restaurants, etc. Even in this technology society, people yearn to get together, to be with friends and acquaintances. (Note how tech-based getting-together solutions like Meetups, Tweetups and Foursquare have emerged.) How aware are you of the community you serve? How can you engage it, and nourish it? How can you honor the value that your customers place in it?

Related posts:
The Values Proposition

“Customer Insight From The Ground Up” webinar now archived

Friday, July 10th, 2009

If you regret missing the webinar I did last week, “Customer Insight From The Ground Up” (and I know you do), you’ll be happy to know it’s been archived. The webinar covers the customer story-gathering and sensemaking approaches discussed frequently on this blog. You can listen to the webinar, as well as download slides & notes, from Listrak’s site here.

Customers are talking: “Why Customers Really Buy”

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Why Customers Really Buy: Uncovering the Emotional Triggers That Drive Sales” by Linda Goodman & Michelle Helin is a worthy addition to the literature on customer research. It describes a method of learning about customers by conducting in-depth interviews aimed at identifying “emotional triggers” that influence how and why customers buy products and select certain suppliers over others.

These emotional triggers bear a resemblance to the “deep metaphors” described in Zaltman & Zaltman’s “Marketing Metaphoria” but the means of getting to them is much more akin to the story-gathering and sensemaking methods we’ve discussed in this blog than in the collage-making at the center of the Zaltmans’ approach.

The authors’ description of the complexity and emotion of the sales process, and how customers can reveal their true feelings within open-ended interviews, are excellent. I’ve done projects like this and my approach has a lot in common with Goodman and Helin’s. They neatly summarize the difficulty with the most-prevalent customer research method–the survey:

Frequently, surveys include a list of choices that are ranked in order of priority or in order of preference. For example, customers may be asked to rank the importance of a number of considerations impacting the shopping experience. The list might include cleanliness, helpful sales staff, good lighting, neatly displayed merchandise, competitive prices, good selection and so forth.

Although the ranking would accurately report how customers rated the choices they were given, there’s still one little problem. Their actual “hot button” might never have been on the list.

There are also many case studies that add richness and depth to the ideas. The volume and variety of case studies is the best part of the book.

I wished Goodman and Helin talked more about the sensemaking process – the method of distilling insight from the interviews. In my experience this is the “secret sauce” of the entire approach and not a straightforward process. It would have been valuable for the authors to describe how they got from the customer interviews to the “emotional triggers” that were central to each of their projects.

Finally, I would have loved for the book to cite external sources that inspired their thinking. It’s possible that they came up with this approach completely alone, but it’s more likely that their ideas stand “on the shoulders of giants“–it would be a significant benefit to their readers if Goodman and Helin could, in a future edition or on their website, include notes and a bibliography.

(Thanks to Tom Gibson for pointing out the book to me.)

Related posts:
The weird, alchemical process of distilling insight from stories
“Marketing Metaphoria”: the deep insights behind the products we buy

Customers are talking: the stories of credit-card customers

Friday, May 29th, 2009

There’s a great post over at Verbatim, the Communispace blog, by Karen Barone, discussing a project she did some years ago interviewing customers who had stopped paying their credit card bill. A major finding–people wanted to find some way to connect with their credit-card provider to address their situation. (Sadly, it’s not clear that the companies Barone worked with did anything with the information she provided them.)

The credit-card providers have millions of customers that they treat like indentured servants. In addition to restraints on their business practices via the recently-passed reform legislation, the bill is finally coming due (”Consumer Credit: The Next Crisis” by MacMillan and Jarvis, on harvardbusiness.org) for their history of hard sell, easy credit and swift punishment.

I think credit-card processors could do a lot to turn their reputations and the futures of their businesses around by collecting some stories and, unlike Barone’s experience, acting on them.

Customers are talking: commenters give PayPal a beating

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Recent articles about eBay’s strategy shift, such as this one, underline that eBay will be trying to grow its payments business, PayPal, as auctions decline and the growth in ecommerce in general slows down.

But after reading this string of comments, in response to a fairly innocuous blog post by Fred Wilson (”Why Isn’t PayPal More Successful?“), I wouldn’t put a dime into a company that wants to grow this thing without overhauling its approach to business and customer service. Some snippets:

I smell a scam every time I have to deal with them these days.

I’ve had a $3000 payment held up for months as they suspect that the funds were fraudulently taken from my account. It took me a month before they would even let me prove that I indented to pay for that item on eBay. Needless to say the seller was pissed.

I would seriously (seriously!) hit my fingers with a framing hammer before I would use Paypal again. I don’t have emotional reactions to most brands. Apple? Eh. Windows? Sort of dislike it. Amazon? Sort of like it. … Paypal? HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE.

Also, Paypal’s buyer protection is a complete joke. They claim to be able to help, but I lost all faith when I received this response from their resolution center after blatently getting ripped off by a web designer scammer: “After careful review, we have determined that the seller is at fault but regret to inform you that we were unable to recover any funds from the seller’s account.” How this reads to me: “You’re screwed and we tried to help for 7 seconds but then didn’t feel like helping anymore so we stopped.”

The biggest issue for me is that they demand bank account information to “verify” my credit card accounts once cumulative transactions go over a certain level. I have absolutely no interest in having my bank account numbers all over the place on different sites’ servers, and at the same time they have no need for the information as I always use an (obviously valid) credit card through them.

Ugh. I hate paypal.

I haven’t seen this much negative emotion around a product in quite some time. Good luck to eBay CEO John Donahoe. He’s going to need it.

UPDATE 26 May 09: Another ugly PayPal story, posted as a comment on the pennlive.com version of this blog.

Customer service is such an important job, perhaps we should spread it around

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Let me point out two problems:

1) Customer service is quite a difficult job and even the best reps are prone to burn out in time–it has turned into a low-pay, high-turnover McJob instead of the vital, even exalted position it should be.

2) Most managers & leaders are disconnected from their customers, with the result that their decisions often ignore or even defy customers’ wishes.

So, I worked my brain overtime during the recent holiday weekend and came up with a solution: EVERYBODY works in customer service.

Think of it. Rather than a group of ground-down reps fielding all the complaints and questions, everybody takes a turn. It could be perhaps 10-15% of everyone’s job–4-6 hours a week. Computer-aided telephony systems & CRM systems easily support flexible staffs of work-from-home agents and could manage the shift of calls from agent to agent.

Burnout would cease, because everyone would spend 85-90% of their time doing other things. Service would improve, because reps would, essentially, be paid more and be of more varied experience than the reps of today. Customer service management would become really important, since creating processes and training to allow many people to share the job would pose a true management challenge.

Also, everyone throughout the company would gain direct experience with customers’ problems and questions, and therefore be much better able to suggest solutions to product, packaging, distribution, etc., to improve the customer experience.

Meaning the product and the customer service job would, over time, improve. Those speaking to customers would add more value–such as consultation. Deeper insights would find their way into the product. Kind of a virtuous circle.

What do you think?

Thinking about: “low tech and on the ground”

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Customers are talking: the empathetic company

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

The New York Times today features an interview with Dev Patnaik, a consultant specializing in helping companies to develop growth strategies and the author of a new book, “Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy,” which claims that a missing ingredient in recipes for corporate success is the human train of empathy:

[Patnaik] argues in the book that it is not the lack of innovation that hampers companies, but the “empathy gap” — the chasm between employees in organizations and the people that they serve. Companies, he said, “do a good job of stamping empathy out of employees, then are surprised when employees make poor decisions or try to sell things that people don’t need.”

In a way this reflects the “bringing the outside in” concept from Kotter’s “A Sense of Urgency.” Patnaik gives the example of the auto managers who never experienced the car business from a customer’s point of view–buying a car, financing it, servicing it, etc.–and thereby lost touch with the consumer and the marketplace.

Part of this “empathy gap” is the distancing of management from the customer and the customer experience–where dashboards and status reports have crowded out anecdotal information and real human experience. This is what the “customers are talking” initiative is attempting to do–to connect managers and leaders with the ground-level experience of their customers and by so doing to equip them to make better decisions about their products and services.

Here’s an interesting observation from Patnaik about one of the big problems with marketing:

The companies are trying to get the customers to identify with their product rather than getting their own employees to identify with their customers.

In other words, companies are trying to make up for their lack of customer insight with messaging. These marketers believe that if they create a powerful, resonant message, it will draw people to their products. But if the product is not created with a deep sense of the customer in mind, the message won’t work.

I’ll have to pick up a copy of “Wired to Care” and see what else the book has to say about this important subject.

Related posts:
A Competitive Advantage: Employees who spend most of their time talking to customers
Time to start listening to front-line employees