Customer Contact: The Enduring Power of “I Get You”
When I think about customer contact, one particular discussion comes to mind. “It followed a misunderstanding with George, a new business colleague. George claimed I was being unfair in our business agreement; I did not recall our understanding at all the way my position was being described. George and I parted ways, electing to revisit this inharmonious issue when cooler heads prevailed. But, I continued to worry about how I was so misperceived and brought up the argument with my good friend, John.
“I get you completely, Chip!” my good friend John exclaimed when I completed my effort to factually describe the diatribe over the business agreement. He continued, “Fairness is your middle name. I think George is the one who is wrong in this situation.” I felt much better. And, John’s words “I get you!” rang in my inner ear! What does it take for someone to say, “I get you completely!” How many of your customers could make that claim of you? How many employees could say, “My leader gets me.”
The payoff for “getting” someone is significant. It enables you to operate without having to watch your back. When my cat sleeps peacefully nearby with her back to me and doesn’t flinch when something out of her line of sight crashes to the floor, it doesn’t mean she’s deaf. Instead, she understands no harm will come her way as long as I am nearby. She “gets me.”
“Getting” customers (or colleagues or employees) enables you to anticipate their needs, providing support even before it is requested. It is the foundation of extreme trust, the handmaiden of confident dealings. It clears the pathway for helpful candor, authentic connections, and fruitful partnerships. It’s the salve for heartache and the relief for disappointment. But, how does one acquire this magic potion of true partnership?
We live in the era of big data. Organizations flex their research prowess and boast about their complex, sophisticated tools for information mining and technology-generated intelligence gathering. Savvy corporate scientists gather reams of customer data that can be scrutinized, sanitized, homogenized and summarized into a PowerPoint presentation so leaders can feel satisfied they “get” the customer. No customer conversations are needed.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) customers are people. As such they perceive service, as Tom Peters wrote, “In their own unique, idiosyncratic, emotional, end-of-the-day and total human terms.” What they report to a dispassionate data gatherer might be as close to the truth as what customers tell a telemarketer at suppertime.
It makes relying on big data for customer contact like fighting a war with drones or warriors. Drones, like big data, can be highly efficient. Success in war or customer understanding, however, can only be attained the old-fashioned way — up close and personal.
But, what do customer contact people do when the opportunity for unfiltered inquiry happens. Below are a few principles that may guide how you gain information that enables you to “get” your customers, not just know about them.
Stop Expecting Surveys to Be Your Tools for Learning
Customer contact surveys yield mildly interesting demographic and psycho-graphic information that can, generally, be useful in marketplace positioning, benchmarking or strategy. But customer intelligence, the kind relevant for service or product improvement, is best achieved face-to-face and ear-to-ear. And, your front line has that opportunity every day.
Train Customer Contact People to Ask Open-ended Questions
Learning begins with a spirit of openness and curiosity. If customers feel free to move the conversation as they see fit, they will gravitate to areas of significance to them — the good, bad and ugly of their personal experience. “What are ways we can…” or “How would you suggest we…” are much more likely to give you a lesson your customer is willing to deliver, not “On a 1 to 10 scale, how would you rate…”
Orient Customer Contact People to Use “Quest for Learning” Attitude
Prefacing your query with “I need your help” or “We are eager to improve your experience” signals to customers your interest is in learning, not a convoluted way to sell something. Eliminate defensiveness from the conversation. Even if the customer comments are factually wrong, they may be perceptually accurate. The goal is to learn about customers’ experiences; this is not the time to correct their misperceptions.
Train Customer Contact People to Present Problem-solving, Non-evaluative Questions
Questions that are evaluative in nature create a tone of critique…right and wrong; good and bad. Problem solving questions can be fun for customers to answer and are generally taken seriously. Ask a customer questions like “If this were your restaurant, what would you do differently?” And, if the customer says, “I don’t know,” respond with a warm “If you did know, what would you suggest!” This tells the customer you are both serious about their ideas.
Honor Customers for Taking the Time to Teach You
Most customers have no interest in instructing you in their perspective on your service. It is incumbent on the student (that’s you) to give the customer some incentive to provide you with a quick lesson. If possible, let the customer know how you plan to report on the improvements made from their lesson. Also, if you make that promise, always keep it.
Listening to Customers is Good; Watching Customer Behavior is Better
People often behave in ways different than predicted. When Professor Gerald Young at the University of Florida compared the reasons patients gave for switching physicians with the reasons they predicted would influence that decision, there was a major difference. “Quality of medical practice” was the factor patients consistently said would send them away, while in fact, “bedside manner” was the most frequent trigger for the change. Actual customer behavior is often more telling than the customer’s words.
Service Wisdom Comes from Customer Intelligence Not Just Customer Feedback
General George S. Patton soundly defeated German General Erwin Rommel in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. When asked his secret of success, Patton pronounced, “I read his damn book!”
Service wisdom comes from valuing an assortment of sources for customer intelligence. The security guard’s assessment of the demeanor of a departing key customer can be more instructive than forty focus groups and sixty surveys; talking with a customer you lost last year might be more helpful than with the one you acquired last week.
Spread Your Customer Learnings as Widely as Possible
Stew Leonard’s Dairy headquartered in Norwalk, CT posts customer suggestions on their giant bulletin board for all to see. They also make copies and distribute them to key departments throughout the supermarket. USAA Insurance in San Antonio, TX posts customer ideas on a special section of their intranet. The key is to let as many people as possible know what customers think, as quickly as possible. Waiting until the marketing department has sanitized the data robs the front line of real-time information needed to adjust what they do.
We typically think of customer contact “feedback” and evaluation as judgmental opinions, not as instructive information. We think we need cold, hard data to instigate accurate change. Consider the word itself. “Feeding back” implies nurturance, like returning important nutrients to the soil through fertilizer. Customers will more likely give you their lessons that “fertilize” your customer service if you approach them as a student eager for a lesson rather than as a student uneasy about getting a grade.