Talking to Your Customers (Literally)

In the digital world, driven by interaction and big data, there are many sophisticated ways to get customer feedback.  Yet, whatever happened to good old-fashioned conversation?

Before I go old school and suggest engaging in real dialogue (the kind where human lips move and emit sounds), let’s take a look at some more technologically advanced ways to do it:

  • E-listening tools that mine and semantically analyze online chatter.  These tools are getting more and more specialized for specific industries, e.g. there are different social monitoring platforms built specifically for restaurants and car dealerships.   These days you can’t go anywhere in New York City without running into a hot dog vendor, an investment banker or someone who has developed a new social media monitoring tool.
  • Online survey tools that tie respondents’ attitudinal data (from surveys) to the demographic and behavioral data that lives in databases and analytics software (at Penton we used Qualtrics with intriguing results).
  • Sophisticated platforms like Jive Software and Get Satisfaction that facilitate online customer communities and integrate with social media, CRM systems and marketing automation tools.   This takes “feedback” to the next level by making it actionable – by putting it right in the tools used by marketing and sales teams in the context of their workflow.  You know things are far along when Gartner even has a Magic Quadrant for the space, called Social CRM tools.

There’s a time and a place for these tools.  I admit they’re very tempting.  I’m an early adopter of marketing technologies and my team has done hundreds of research studies for clients in recent years. So if anyone’s going to be tempted by shiny new toys and the urge to quantify feedback, it’s me. 

But what about actually talking to your customers?  New technology is wonderful but nothing can provide the context, tone and depth of a human voice.  (Not to mention the important subtleties by reading body language). 

We live in a digital world, with short attention spans and universal impatience.  So you might be wondering – will people take the time to really discuss how they feel in great detail (when it’s so much easier to click or type comments online)?  People like to sound off, to be heard.  Back in my brand planning days at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising we identified several core human needs, one of which is the need for expression, which runs deep in our DNA.  Customers have emotional ties to brands, even in the business world where “rational” criteria is supposed to drive decisions.   In every market, customers with true attachments to brands have a vested (psychological) interest in expressing what they think and feel.

 So how can those conversations be held?  There are focus groups and 1:1 interviews (and at Saatchi we hired psychologists and anthropologists to facilitate and analyze the dialogue).  Yet, one obvious but overlooked way is simply asking people for feedback.  Go to a trade show or an event and talk to current customers and prospects—in depth.  One time at trade show, I introduced myself to a customer prospect and effectively said, “Hi, I run X brand and I’m wondering if you can give me some feedback.”  The gent spent two intense hours with me and provided terrific ideas on our product and ways to improve it given the challenges he faces every day.  At the end of our conversation, he thanked me for listening.   He gave me two hours of his time and thanked me.  Now that’s the power of listening.

 Advisory boards can be a wonderful way of getting dynamic and deep customer insights. Many companies use advisory boards as window dressing, as a way to give the appearance of being customer centric.  The ones that do it well put their advisory board members to work and have a structured process.   Personally, the most productive advisory board I’ve been on is one that put particular time and care into its organization.  Some highlights of that board:

  • Annual retreats for members
  • Briefing materials in advance for participants (with some business context)
  • Structured agendas with strategic challenges posed (with time allocated for free form discussion)
  • Breakout groups with issues and tasks for board members to address

 All of the output of the advisory board session was facilitated by a moderator and the proceedings were documented, prioritized and presented to management back at headquarters.  And then after the session, we, the customers, become part of a community.   This group was better than a market research panel, we became a team of actively engaged stakeholders with a vested interest in seeing the company succeed.

 Senior leaders should get out of their office and talk to customers more.  In the 1980’s there was a business philosophy called Management by Walking Around, where managers learned about concerns first hand by physically circulating around the office and having impromptu discussions with the rank and file.  (Seems obvious now).  The philosophy refers to managing employees, but it also applies to getting customer feedback, e.g. the power of getting out there and talking to people. 

 W. Edwards Deming said it best, “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realise they have one in the first place.”

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