Posts Tagged ‘listening’

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

Rakontu, open-source story-sharing software, is here

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

If you’ve read this blog regularly, you may have encountered me discussing how nice it would be to gather stories from front-line personnel and share them with the rest of the company, or to have a repository where staff members could share information that’s pertinent to the company, its customers, competitors and markets.

One barrier to these ideas was the unavailability (or unaffordability) of software that was adept at storing, annotating, tagging, and presenting this messy kind of narrative data. Well, that barrier is down, effective immediately.

Cynthia Kurtz, one of the pioneers in the story-listening world and author of “Working With Stories,” has developed an open-source package called Rakontu, which is the best thing I’ve seen at collecting and presenting narrative data, involving a community in adding to it, and making it generally useful to a group of people–the contributors included.

It’s a beautiful, elegantly-designed application, far more polished than users of new software have a right to expect. There are a couple of webcasts available on the Rakontu website which you should watch if you are interested.

(Disclosure: I’ve done a bit of collaboration with Cynthia and was an alpha tester of the software. No money changed hands ;)

By the way, Cynthia has started a blog, “Story-Colored Glasses,” which you should put into your RSS reader immediately.

Related posts:
Gathering customer intelligence from your front-line staff
Bringing the outside in

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

To motivate front-line employees: don’t just thank them, use their insights

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Sylvia Ann Hewlett blogged at Harvard Business Review that leaders need to inspire lower-level employees. She writes:

…No one succeeds alone, which is why all leaders must find a way to pollinate the workforce with their values, ideas and enthusiasm. This is what keeps businesses humming, especially during a downturn.

Some leaders inspire the masses via the grand motivational speech. Others via one-on-one conversations. At Time Warner, CEO Jeffrey L. Bewkes held a series of skip-level lunches with ten to twelve high performers that typically had little or no access to him. He spent two unscripted hours talking about his vision and answering their questions. Employees who attended Bewkes’ lunches reported feeling more “confident in the company” and developed a new affinity for their chief.

Whatever vehicle leaders choose to use to reach out and inspire employees at local levels, their talk must have teeth. Don’t spout hyperbole — “Great job” or “we can do it!” Instead, serve up concrete, achievable goals. Listen to people’s problems and offer real solutions. Mentor by sharing your own lessons learned, celebrate teams’ efforts and reward tangible achievements. Even a simple “thanks” goes a long way when delivered from on high.

Each week at furniture designer Knoll, president and COO Lynn Utter emails four senior managers and asks them for the name of one person on their team who has been exemplary. Utter then calls each person to thank and congratulate him or her for a specific accomplishment. Utter is as time-constrained as the rest of us but says that if she cannot make four phone calls a week to acknowledge people’s good work, then she is not doing her job

Hewlett is right–inspiring the troops is an important leadership task, especially in tough times. But my reaction on reading this prescription was, “Ugh, more top-down thinking.” In other words, everything’s up to the leader–that “affinity for the chief” and thanking employees makes a company better.

How about this idea instead? Let’s forget about CEO Bewkes for a moment, and focus on making the work more fun and rewarding for the 87,000 people who work for Time Warner.

Gary Hamel discussed this idea in his recent book “The Future of Management.” In it he pointed out how Toyota is able to leverage the creative thinking of all its 300,000 employees through means like the Toyota Production System. This benefits the company by ensuring a constant stream of innovation, and the employees by making the workplace a more rewarding place to spend time.

I am focused on one particular group of employees–those who interact directly with customers. This includes customer-service reps, retail clerks, bank tellers and account support staff. It is a group with tremendous insight, and a group that’s held in low esteem in companies I’m familiar with. To borrow a phrase from my friend Matthew Achak, “Nobody listens to the reps.”

They sometimes are not even allowed internet access.

This is just wrong. These groups occupy a unique position in the company. They hear the unvarnished truth from customers. Their stories, rather than being ignored, should be nurtured and collected. Everyone else in the company should read them and absorb the lessons (especially the leadership). They should be primary inputs to strategy, marketing and product development. The best stories and best storytellers should be acknowledged and promoted.

Companies should focus on something like this, instead of sending their CEOs around on motivational tours or making four calls per week to exemplary employees.

Increasing employees’ sense of meaning and personal value in their work. Now that’s leadership.

Related posts:
Time to start listening to customer-facing employees
On “The Future of Management”

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.

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

Customers are talking: using reverse logistics to improve products

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

As part of our regular Tuesday series on finding and acting on customer use stories, let’s talk about reverse logistics. This is the process by which retailers and manufacturers deal with customer returns.

This article (hat tip Colin Shaw) discusses how companies can examine and make changes to their reverse logistics procedures to reduce costs and streamline the process. This is good advice as far as it goes.

But like many “customers are talking” topics, companies need to take an additional step in order to really utilize the reverse logistics process to its utmost.

Each customer return is a story. Capturing and collecting those stories, and regularly examining them for patterns, can yield important information about how the product is designed, communicated and supported. For example, consumer electronics are notorious for their returns frequency, and the reason for these returns often is that the product is difficult to use or its documentation is poorly written or inadequate (multi-language manuals introduce another set of obstacles for customers).

A company can work with its retailers, as part of the overall design of the reverse logistics process, to capture important information about why the product was returned. Ideally, the verbatim customer story is captured–which is easy to do with online returns.

The collection, of course, is the simple part of the equation. The more complex task is the sensemaking of the numerous narratives captured. This sensemaking, more of a collaborative thinking process than an analytical one, can be accomplished with training and skilled mentoring.

The potential payoff is large: marketing managers who are made of aware of why returns happen can make (often simple) changes to packaging, design, channel strategy or documentation to improve initial customer satisfaction. Not only does this reduce returns, it also increases the likelihood that more people buy the product in the first place.

A friend owns a company that manages reverse logistics for name-brand consumer electronics manufacturers. I asked him if he knew why a certain product was often returned and he said, “Yes, always.” I asked him if he had a way of letting the marketing folks at his client know these reasons. And he shook his head.

Given that many companies are outsourcing their reverse logistics operations to third parties, they need to take care that they keep the channel of communication open to learn why items are returned, and what can be changed about the product, its support documentation or its point of sale in order to make more initial purchases successful ones.

Customers Are Talking: Reading Between The Lines

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009


One of the important insights in looking for meaningful stories in customer interactions is the following: you can’t read a story by looking at metrics. That is to say, how long someone talked, what time of day it occurred, etc., has no relationship to the content itself. In my work, I listen to lots and lots of customer stories, and I have experienced this very thing. If you want to understand the story, you have to read, or listen to, the whole thing.

It’s unfortunate that this is so, because the quickest way to absorb information is to read it in summary. It’s also the easiest way for computers to process information. Computers are excellent at counting, measuring, etc., but terrible at reading and interpreting.

I hear you already: what about semantic analysis? Good: doable by computers. Bad: doesn’t provide much insight. Here’s an example: evaluate all customer service calls longer than 8 minutes and containing the word “unhappy.” Let the computer pull out two sentences before and after that word. Won’t that sort out all the unhappy customer calls and allow us to analyze a manageable data set? [If you think this is difficult to do, I can point you to a slew of vendors who are dying to talk to you about their products.]

The problem is, “unhappy” is context-dependent. The caller may be unhappy with the quality of her service. She may also be unhappy she forgot to pack her son’s lunch that morning, Someone else may be unhappy for a completely unrelated event.

[As an experiment, I've been monitoring Tweets referring to the Blackberry Storm using the happy :) or unhappy :( emoticons--easy to do with Twitter Search. With more than 100 tweets examined, very few of the emoticons represented satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the device itself--they were related to wanting the device and not getting it, or hoping to get it, for example.]

In a recent discussion, a friend talked about word clouds as very useful summaries of social media data. I pointed out to him that the appearance of a word in a story doesn’t create significance. Similarly, the absence of a word doesn’t mean that word is insignificant. (What’s unsaid may, in fact, be the most important words in the entire dialogue. Harold Pinter won a Nobel Prize for his mastery of this truism.)

In sum, at present, the intervention of a person close to the customer interaction at the time it occurs is the best way to determine if a communication is significant or not. If it’s someone looking at it after the fact, that person will have to read the entire story, not a summary. I wish there were a shortcut, but there’s not.

Are keyword searches or word clouds useless? No. If you are a cable company, searching for specific, unambiguous words like “DVR” in your customer communication is likely to be useful. Searching for context-dependent items like “unhappy” or “delighted” is not.

Customers are talking: you can’t listen to customers if you hate them

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Every Tuesday, this space will cover “Customers Are Talking… Are You Listening?”

“Customers Are Talking” builds on the work I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years in product management, sales & account management, & specifically on the story-listening work I’ve embarked upon in the past year. (I cheated a little by sneaking in two posts on this subject yesterday.)

It was great to read a recent interview with one of the quietest great thinkers I know, Cynthia Kurtz.

While discussing some things she had learned in her work helping companies and governments gather and work with stories from customers and employees, she said this:

Several times now [in these projects] I have seen people viewing their clients or customer or employees or constituents with contempt, for example equating weakness, confusion or ignorance with insignificance, low status/value/worth or even wrongdoing.


As I read this I was surprised and shocked, yet at the same time I nodded my head and said to myself, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this lots of times.” No company would admit that it hates its customers, but if the leadership looks deep into their hearts they may recognize the behavior that Cynthia mentions.

And for marketers this is a big concern. Because marketers, more and more these days, need to listen to and act on customer feedback. People don’t listen to those they hate. They disregard, dismiss or rationalize their statements. Even when marketing believes in its customers, if the organization’s culture is a customer-hating one, the messages won’t get acted on. [It may go without saying that customer-hating companies will be punished first in a difficult economic environment.]

So, if you’re instituting a voice of the customer program, or if you’ve already got one, answer these questions first: do I think my customers have something valuable to say? Will I listen to it and try to act on it?

Because if you’re one of those companies that holds their customers in contempt, asking them what they think won’t do you any good.

[By way of equal time, I should probably refer to this earlier post where I talked about companies who are hated by their customers.]

Stop reacting, and start listening, to online customer feedback

Monday, January 5th, 2009

I generally like this post from Matt Rhodes, my fellow Futurelabber (”How to react if somebody writes about your brand online“), but I have a bone to pick with the premise.

One of the biggest mistakes marketers are making in social media now is focusing on reacting. They are taking lessons learned from political campaigns and applying them to their relationships to the public. It’s a misfit. Political campaigns are adversarial. If your relationship with the public is that way, you have bigger problems than what people say about you on Twitter.

Reacting as strategy is a last, desperate attempt to deploy the marketer’s favorite tool, “messaging,” into a connected marketplace. As Doc Searls wrote, “There is no market for your messages.”

Rather than a futile tit-for-tat, your post to my counterpost competition to establish the preeminence of a company’s message in the networked marketplace, how about listening to what customers are saying, and taking it to heart? Thinking about it, perhaps? And, if warranted, a respectful, measured contribution to the dialogue? It can be done. Ask Comcast, and Dell, for starters.