I learned about listening to customers from watching my father. He was the manager of a Sears store, and he gained a sense of what his customers were thinking from his contact with them every day.
During my father’s workday, he’d walk around and talk to customers. They knew who he was, and they took their concerns to him directly. So he’d hear such complaints as, “I think your women's clothing department stinks,” or, “The dishwasher never worked right.” He’d also hear praise (“I love this store.”). Back in those days, that’s how companies gauged how they were doing--through direct, in-person feedback from their customers.
It’s much more difficult to get that kind of feedback from customers today. If you’re shopping online, you’re not going to run into the store manager while scrolling down a catalog page. Even customers in a brick-and-mortar store are unlikely to recognize and flag down the store manager. Meanwhile, those same customers connect with other consumers through mobile phones or social networks to ramble, vent, or praise.
So what does the modern CMO need to do to get a sense of how customers truly feel? Here is what my father could have told them:
1. Be relentless.
History tells us that new technology is always on the horizon, ready to disrupt the way people do business at anytime. In the early 1900s, a company built a seven-masted ship designed to compete with the steamboat. The Thomas W. Lawson was an attempt to keep sailing ships competitive with steamships, but it was unsuccessful. It didn’t matter that the Thomas W. Lawson was the largest pure sailing vessel ever built—by the time it arrived, that ship had already sailed.
Similarly, technology has disrupted the way companies do brand monitoring. Before the digital age, companies hired people whose only job was to listen to the radio. If they needed to monitor 20 radio stations in Vancouver, for example, a company would hire 60 people who'd work in shifts. When they heard a brand mentioned, they would write down whether the comment was positive or negative. Of course, this type of monitoring wasn’t exclusive to radio; service firms created a business from monitoring print and television, as well. Media monitoring has been around since the ’50s and ’60s, and reached its apogee at the end of the ’90s, when digital technology arrived. Just like the sailing ship, analog media monitoring got good at counting just as its days were numbered.
The social media phenomenon is hot now, but who is to say that another disruption isn’t on the horizon?
2. Encourage two-way conversations.
Sending surveys is a popular way of obtaining customer feedback, but one typical challenge with this approach is that it tends to be one-way. Engagement is about having a two-way conversations.
Businesses need a way to engage customers as my father did. Imagine a world where the customer is able to virtually “walk over” to the manager directly to complain or praise the functionalities of the company’s products. This kind of dialogue is easier and cheaper now because of digital technologies. It’s simply up to companies to do it.
3. Look for context and a broader representation.
So seven people tweeted complaints about your product; does that mean your company needs to abandon your current product plan? In the days when you heard from your customers face-to-face, you could put complaints in context. You probably knew the guy who was complaining. These days, you need to find other ways of attaining that context, for example, by checking online complaints against feedback from a representative group of your customers, an insight community that furnishes input from hundreds or thousands of consumers.
4. Never stop expanding your community.
My father spoke with his customers every day. Seeking out customer insight wasn’t a one-time project: It was part of his daily routine.
Similarly, companies today need to engage members of their community continuously and invite people to join. If you want an honest group of people who will give you the answers you need to hear, then you should be ready to work to engage and develop this community. Keep your social media fans close, but your insight community closer.
Companies may not have the proximity to customers that they had in my father’s day, but they can still gather the same kind of feedback--even better feedback, actually. The Internet allows many of your customers to buy from you without ever walking into your store and to give you feedback anonymously and online. But if you have an insight community that connects you with your customers, that same Internet can give you a breadth, depth, and consistency of feedback that my father could never have imagined.