The Secret to Finding True Customer Insight

“I guess we just made a big mistake,” Jonah said.

He looked directly at me for a moment and then downward at his wrinkled hands collecting his thoughts as the sun was setting, casting long shadows across the kitchen table.

His wife reached out and laid her hands protectively on his while Jonah looked me directly in the eye.  They both had something to say. The retired couple were visibly upset but were doing their best to keep their composure.

“We are of modest means,” he started.

As he began his tale I could see tears swelling in his partner’s eyes. Jonah was sitting broomstick straight stoic, his bubbling rage barely constrained behind his dark blue eyes. She sat silent, interjecting on occasion. They both had a message to send. I was to be their messenger. I was there to be their confessor and offer, perhaps, some small degree of absolution.

In this in-home interview, we weren’t talking about a loved one lost. We weren’t talking about a swindled retirement savings or some form of nefarious flim-flam that convinced Jonah and his wife to buy brackish real estate in Florida. We were discussing an automotive purchase, about which they now had very serious misgivings.

“We just believed in them…we feel so betrayed….” she said.

This was very real for them, and in their presence I felt their worry. I experienced their remorse. I felt their pain. I walked away from the interview moved, a bit sad and much wiser. What survey could have captured this?

An undergraduate professor I once had related how he couldn’t conduct surveys because he thought them impersonal and even insulting to participants. He judged them, on the whole, disrespectful and indignant. At the time I dismissed him as being an overly sensitive neo-hippy lacking monetary drive who should just go back to his yurt and carve a new bong out of reclaimed barn wood.

I have recently started to rethink my judgment of the good professor’s position.

Much of the research industry has long viewed the respondent as a commoditized, and largely free, raw ingredient in which to make insight sausages. The ideas being we could just zap enough people in a panel to fill our quotas and off we go. A filled quota is a filled quota after all.

As much as the thought of the mechanization of queuing people to answer your inquiries is appealing, I would encourage you to think about who exactly are taking these long boring surveys.

I have become deeply suspicious of some panels that prod their herds to complete some really poorly constructed “self service” surveys through incentives. Flat-liners, speeders, repeaters, and plain old cheaters are prevalent. There are even software programs that will cheat for you that are available for purchase. A.I. is let lose upon the untended yearning fields of uncompleted questionnaires to do what humans are loathe to do.

As a Professor at the University of Arkansas, I asked my students to describe what taking survey was like using only one word.

“Annoying” “boring” and “pointless” led the list.

In designing surveys, I encourage those same students to ask themselves “would I fill this out”? If not, you should think about a redesign…or different approach completely.

Surveys have their place. I don’t think they are going anywhere soon, but we should become much better at choosing our audiences and creating better and engaging designs.

Good data comes at a price. That price is investing the time to really care about what people have to say and listening in ways that they want to communicate. To not view them as the raw grist for the insight mill to process.

Every day millions of posts are made on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Much of this communication is the expression opinions about people, product, places, and things. Why do people share these things? Because they are provided a forum in which they feel heard. A forum, in which some small way, their voices matter. This empowers people.

So let’s not dump surveys altogether, but become more attuned to the people you are talking to. They are real people with real problems, fears, and dreams. Be with them as a partner and confident, not as some indifferent corporate scientist.

The key to gaining great insight can be found in respectful and careful listening. It is about engaging in deliberate empathy. This is where real insight is uncovered; the ability to see the world from the viewpoint of the people you are interested in understanding.

You will get so much more from this approach even in smaller sample sizes than some sterile panel survey that goes out to god knows who or what. Keep it real. Keep it human.

The fundamentals of consumer research are sound. Companies are still very interested in what their customers have to say. Customers are very interested in sharing their opinions and experiences.

The trick is to listen to your customers in a way they want to be heard. Let them know you care. Be their messenger. Respect them. And if possible, be their advocate.

How to Keep Your Brand Human at Scale

“Heeeeey!!!”

“Dude, Dave shaved his beard!” Benji, shouted over his shoulder laughing.

His friends shook their heads smiling in the background.

“It was getting itchy,” I said.

“Duuuuude….you have to give it time,” he said smiling brightly, “the yuse?”

“Yup,” I said.

This wasn’t my co-worker. It wasn’t one of my students. Benji is the barista and all-around go-to guy at our local coffee drive-through 7Brew right here in hoppin’ Bentonville. He knows me, my wife, my kids, and even my dog.

With three locations and a fourth in the works, 7Brew founder Ron Crume had the customer at forefront in both interaction and the design of his locations when arrived here from Grants Pass, Oregon. “Drinks are a byproduct of what we sell, it’s all about the experience,” Crume shared.

Making sure he designed his locations to maximize human the interaction, there is plenty of glass used in construction, and a two-way traffic pattern with people approaching the drive-thru in both directions. Mobile order takers are out and about in all kinds of weather joking and talking with customers.

Beyond the physical and process aspects, are the people. 7Brew is quite particular who they hire. “We are very careful who we hire and want to ensure a good fit with the culture and with the team,” says Crume. Prospective employees are interviewed both by managers and the team to ensure that fit. They are looking for people who are good with people.

The crew at 7Brew are not locked into a narrow approach to customer service where they have to say some contrived tagline, are required to wear a certain amount of “flair”, or ensure they are hitting some kind of behavioral checklist. They are afforded the autonomy, within reason, to make the call for the customer. In short, they can be human. “Our goal is to change the world with one smile and act of kindness at a time,” Crume shared.

The Case for Certainty

However, a willy-nilly no-holds-bar approach to customer service can create chaos. If every barista decided how they wanted to make a mocha or deal with a distraught customer independently companies would quickly lose the ability to scale effectively. They would also lose the ability to deliver consistency, something customers absolutely hate.

As human beings we are evolutionarily hardwired to want to know what is around that next corner or over the hill. This need for knowing has been successfully translated in such psychologically fulfilling but otherwise useless tools such as the Domino’s Pizza Tracker. After all, the Pizza Tracker doesn’t help get your pizza there any faster, it just tells you when it will be there. Not too many people order a pizza and then slip out for a 1-hour jog. You order a pizza because you or your family is hungry.

At Curiosity we have found that consistent delivery even trumps an occasional good experience. There is ample evidence that people would rather have persistently mediocre or bad experiences than one that is good one time and bad the next..

So how do you overcome this chaos in customer service? Even a simple business model requires front-end training to be effective, but training is expensive and takes time. With front-line service workers and call center agents generally less educated and a higher turnover rate amongst this population, comprehensive training is difficult, but left untended creates huge variability in service.

The answer for many is to develop a standards program. Standards programs are where the organization a priori identifies behaviors and processes they want employees to follow and then enforce them through rewards and “incentives”. While we still must train, much of the grey area in service delivery can be simplified.

In using standards to develop a set of defined and simple to understand procedures and behaviors seem like a common solution. “Greet people with x minutes of arriving”, “Answer the phone within y rings”, “Keep on hold time below z minutes” are all laudable axioms and derived metrics to shoot for which are known to positively impact the customer experience.

If done well, those behavior standards are linked to explicitly customer expectation research. For example, we would know the relative impact of hold time going for 5 minutes to 10 minutes and the impact on business outcomes. This is knowable data and helps businesses optimize the cost-benefit equation.

Many businesses were able to rapidly expand their franchise and outlet models through rigid adherence to standards. Standards program were, and are, applied to even high involvement and complex interactions such as automotive sales and service, financial services, insurance, and wealth management.

In this setting the venerable “mystery shop’ is then many times used to assess behavioral and operational compliance. In the one-two punch of traditional CSAT system, direct customer feedback satisfaction is then used to evaluate the evaluative attitudes of customers. In this way we can understand and monitor if we are enforcing the right thing. “Is compliance related to the customer experience?’ and “Is the customer experience related to business outcomes?’ are both questions we can answer with a high degree of certainty.

As you can see in the very typical sample from The Performance Edge, mystery shops get to a very detailed level of behaviors. With a heritage from the world of I/O Psychology and Behavioral Anchored Rating scales (BARs), the intent is not to be overly prescriptive, but to very explicit as to what is the expectation is and what associates need to do to achieve.

df_restaurant_eval

This approach can be very effective, but frequently comes at a price. First, if done poorly it comes across very mechanistic to customers as if employees are “going through the motions’. We have all gotten the flat “I am so sorry sir/ma’am, but I can’t help you” response.

Second, research in psychology has shown that this approach can have the effect of decreasing the implicit motivation of doing good work by substituting an external motivation for implicit one. In this way, fun quickly turns to work for even the most spirited employees.

Finally, many front-line employees I talked to hate the experience. “I feel like I am being treated like a child…it’s ridiculous” one waitress at a local steakhouse told me.

Empowering With Purpose

So how do we minimize the chaos but maximize the humanness? Here are five proven approaches to balance humanness and still provide the consistency that the human species desires.

Robots to the Rescue!

Interestingly one solution can be found in technology. Perhaps we let the robots do the mechanistic jobs that require very specific behavioral parameter; answering within so many minutes, have a response time of y minutes, and so forth. Let make the robots the automatons like the good servants they should be. Let humans do what they are good at; being human.

Tear Down Unneeded Hierarchy

Second, you can dump the old school command and control hierarchy and empower your employees. My first job was with Carlisle Tire and Rubber implementing self-direct work teams in the production cells. It’s amazing what people will do when not treated as a child or cog in a machine…when they are respected and afforded the same freedom they enjoy in their work lives as they do in their personal lives. Sure, there has to be a “boss’ but does there have to be so many of them.

Also, empowerment isn’t just but blowing up the organization and letting people do whatever they want. Former submariner Captain David Marquet offers some excellent insights about how to empower employees effectively. In his article “6 Myths About Empowering Employees” he points out that empowering employees is not something you have to do, that they already are empowered, you just must allow them to do their jobs. However, you just don’t do it in a wanton fashion but ensure both the leadership and the employees have the competence to do so.

Obey the Spirit of the Law, Not the Letter

Third, you aren’t throwing process out the window. You are throwing needless and overly prescriptiveness processes out the window. The good folks at 7Brews have a way they take orders, they have a way they make coffee, and they have a way they take payment. It is clear, consistent, and simple. There is very little variability. However, there is room to test. In talking with the crew there, they seem encouraged to think about new ways of doing things and not just go through the motions. Micah Solomon describes how standards are viewed and used at the Four Seasons resort:

“Standards help ensure that every part of your service reflects the best way your company knows to perform it – a prescription that you autonomously performing employees can then feel free to adapt to suit the needed and wishes, expressed or unexpressed, of the customers they’re actually facing at the moment.”

Train and Inspire

Fourth, is an investment in training. Every great service organization I have encountered invests in and continuously train their employees, this includes 7Brew. The customer experience manager for the high end One and Only resort (of which there is ironically several) told me they conduct training quarterly to every month for all their employees. This training doesn’t necessarily need to be sitting down in the classroom but can be meetups for best practice sharing. It is a continued investment in the front line.

Also ensure you have the right reward and recognition in place to inspire folks. This doesn’t have to be money. Figure out what makes your workforce tick and use that to help motivate them.

Start with The Right Raw Material

Finally, and most importantly, it is getting the right talent for the job from the get-go. Some people do not belong in a customer facing role, just as some people do not belong conducting multi-nomial logit modeling. The right tool for the right job applies to human capital as well. This is well captured in Soar with Your Strengths by Don Clifton and Paula Nelson, where they encourage people to reinforce and chase after what they are good at, and stop worrying as much about what you are bad at.

Whether Benji and the crew at 7Brew in rural Arkansas were born as genuinely gregarious and happy people or learned it from their environment is a debate to be had in academia. In the world of great customer experience, you want these folks on the front line. You want them following processes that make sense but allow for autonomy and room for front-line innovation. Most of all you want to pick the right people for the job, training them, and then let them be them.

It’s All About Loving What You Do

riv barbersEvery time I return to Southern California I make sure I stop by Riviera Barber Shop and get a hair cut and, if I have time, a shave from Luis or Johnny.  I use to view getting a haircut as a mundane task that had to be endured like mowing the lawn or renewing my drivers’ license.  That all changed after my first visit to Riviera, now I view it as a special treat.  The place is not especially cheap, nor is it especially fast, and it is kind of inconvenient for me to get to since I live in Arkansas.  So why do I and many others love the place?

Because they created an emotionally engaging experience that is authentic, memorable, and personal.

The guys at Riviera have created an entire servicescape that is aligned with their brand.  Inside is a life-size wooden cigar Indian, old school Time and Life magazines, and an antique barber pole and red bench outside with random guy smoking a cigarette.  Thirsty? There is an ice box with complimentary Cokes and Coronas, and if it’s Friday maybe a sip of Tequila.  They have it nailed.

But the real stars of the show are the guys that work there.  It’s like they belong there.  The barbershop is their stage and they are they are the stars.  They are a group of professionals who love what they do and it oozes and infects everyone who enters the Rockabilly meets Beach Bum barber shop. You can tell when people are great at what they do and love doing it.  That’s Johnny, Luis, Tommy and the rest of the crew at Riviera.

What can be learned from this?

First, it is a good exemplar of how to create a powerful brand.  Some companies take too narrow a view of their brand.  Functional thinking predominates in the belief they are selling  a car or a meal or a hotel room or a gasoline.  In reality, what most companies are offering is an experience. That experience is part of every single touch point  a customer has directly or indirectly with the brand. Unfortunately, many companies tend to be siloed into disparate channels such as in-store, online, and call center which makes them look at their business in that binned way.

The promise of omni-channel is breaking down those barriers which is good, but we need to do more than just coordinate our communication.  We also need to be thoughtful about how the overall experience is designed and executed.   Riviear Barber Shop isn’t just just about cutting hair.  It’s about good music like Social Distortion and Frank Sinatra and Dodgers baseball when there’s a game.  It’s about innane chatter about celebrities, sport figures, and politicians.  Sparring among the barbers and playful bickering is a feature.  Johnny and his crew create a total organic experience for their customers without even realizing it.

Which brings me to my second point.  Brand experiences are tough to engineer without the most important raw ingredients: the right people.  You can have all the standard operating procedures, training, incentives, facilities, and job aids and still not deliver a holistic brand experience. The essence is in getting the right people to make the brand come alive.  Without those talented folks center stage it is at best an animatronic facsimile or at worst an empty stage.  And it’s not just getting the right skills, you need to get the right cultural fit and  ensure you have an engaged workforce.  Employees shouldn’t live the brand, they should BE the brand.

Steve Jobs once said “the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”  The guys are Riviera clearly do.  They are not passive passengers working in a barbershop, they are the brand. They create an experience well beyond a simple haircut with their banter, music selection, pet squirrel, and baseball preferences.  It doesn’t hurt they deliver in spades on their core service: an awesome shave and haircut.  Even if a franchised store could attain the same quality, it would run the risk of losing authenticity.  It can be done, but needs to be carefully nurtured to scale.

I can’t wait to go back.