What Does It Take To Access And Hear The Richness Of The Voice Of The Customer?

I invite you to take a zen like look into the whole ‘voice of the customer’ thing. By ‘voice of the customer’ I mean the practice of using customer surveys to get customer feedback.  And then turning these individuals customer surveys into tables, charts, reports, and presentations which are fed to managers. By zen I mean a simple direct looking into the concrete reality void of ideology-conceptualisation and self deception.

What do you see when you take that zen like look at this ‘voice of the customer’ thing? Here is what shows up for me: I do not hear the voice of the customer!  There is no voice of the customer! So what is there? Paper, ink, text, diagrams; no human voice speaks.

We, human beings, are masters of self-deception. We are told that being effective with customers starts with customer insight. We are told that being effective involves listening to the voice of the customer. We are told that being effective requires ‘walking in the shoes’ of the customer. What do we do? We get busy with technology centred services that keep Tops and Middles as distant, as insulated, from customers as usual. But now with the illusion of being in contact with the customer!

Before I go on, I wish to make it clear that I am not bashing ‘voice of the customer’ surveying. These surveys, if designed, implemented, and used correctly can provide some useful information. And if the limitations are gotten by those who need to get them (Tops and Middles) then they can be a useful tool. However, this is not what I have experienced. What have I experienced? It occurs to me that many managers use this tools to avoid actually listening to the voice of the customer. And to stay within their comfort zones: the office-corporate environment.

So what does it take to access AND hear the voice of the customer.  I invite you to read and ponder the following (bolding is my work):

How do your decisions affect customers and suppliers? It’s hard for us to imagine this well if we don’t really know the customers and vendors we work with. And we can’t know them if we hardly ever see them. This is one reason why it’s so important to give people a chance to get …., out of their offices, and out of the building, to visit the people they serve.

Whenever manufacturing or design people actually make site visits and see firsthand how customers are using their products, they develop a new insightful imaginative feel for the needs of the customer, and sometimes the plight of the customer. They come face to face with what really works well and what doesn’t work as it should. They hear from other real people what they like and don’t like about the product, what they need and what they’d really like to have if it were just possible. When the end user becomes a face and a voice, a genuine, three dimensional human being, it is much more difficult to ignore his or her interests and needs. This is a natural impetus for good decision making, with the customer’s interest at heart.

– Tom Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors

Is this all there is to get another human being – be s/he a customer, an employee, a partner or a supplier?  No. Even in my home I notice that some of us prefer not to be present to that which is so. Why? Because being present to the reality of the impact of our behaviour can be painful especially if we are committed to keeping our existing practices intact.

So what does it take to get another human being: his/her needs, his/her experience, his/her dreams?  I invite you to read-ponder the following:

we need to cultivate a perceptive imagination on two different levels. First, we need imagination on a small scale. We need empathy. You can’t know how you would want to be treated if you were in another person’s shoes unless you can imagine what it would be like to be in his shoes. It is hard to develop empathy in a robust form without getting to know in concrete and detailed ways the people with whom we need to empathise. One of the most important business commandments then should be: Know thy customer. And it’s equal should be: Know thy associate…… Service and empathy must flow through an organisation first if they are to flow out unimpeded to those with whom the organisation does business.

We also need to cultivate imagination on a large scale, a vivid vision for our lives and our businesses. We need an imaginative conception of what we are doing, a big picture for the contribution we are making to the world. We need a map with coordinates to guide us in our concrete day-to-day decisions….. With a powerful ethical vision directing all our thoughts, we don’t need long list of rules to guide us. We are both informed and inspired to do what is right.

– Tom Morris, If Aristotle Ran General Motors

Summing up, if I am to access and hear the richness of the voice of my customers, my associates, my value creation partners, then the starting point is dropping my ego which constantly calls out “Me, me, ME!”. And rigorously embracing practices that call forth fellow feeling; moving from an I-It way of showing up and travelling in the world to the I-Thou mode.  What I have found is that as I do this the workability of my relationships and my effectiveness-impact increases. So does my experience of being alive and being fulfilled.  What about you?

I thank you for your listening and I hope you will cause-create a great weekend for yourselves and your fellow human beings starting with those with whom you are in most intimate contact. And if you happen to be a Top or a Middle and are serious about listening to your customers then leave your office and go talk with real flesh+blood human beings. And note that you will not have listened, really listened, until you humanity (the best of you) has been called forth and put into these encounters with your fellow human beings disguised as ‘customers’.  Incidentally, this is what social really is.

Customer-Centricity: why engineers are not enough and poets are essential

Where is the enthusiasm born of imagination and passion?

In my 25+ years of walking the corridors of business organisations I have come across the mind/intellect in many guises: as strategy; as planning; as process; as metrics; as technology; as standardisation; as the pursuit of ‘best practice’ and ‘benchmarking’……  What I have rarely experienced is enthusiasm born of imagination and passion.  Yes, I have come face to face with fear, with greed, with pressure, with determination.  And that is not the same as imagination, passion, enthusiasm.  In this post I want to deal with imagination.

Does imagination matter?

Is business simple a game of mind?   Is it simply a case of putting in place the right mix of ‘resources’ – people, processes, technology, metrics – based on analysis and then configuring and deploying these resources in the correct configuration?  I say that this is the traditional assumption and narrative. And that it is not a surprise given the backgrounds of the people who read and write these narratives.

It occurs to me that imagination and passion do matter.  It occurs to me that they play a pivotal role in the game of business, to customer service, to customer experience, to customer-centricity. And it occurs to me that these two dimension are neglected – pushed out to the background or paid lip service.  I see tactics (VoC, data mining, CRM systems, process redesign….) devoid of strategy and where I do encounter strategy it shows up as being devoid of imagination.  It is as if just about everyone is playing the same game (make the P&L numbers) to the same rules and each players is expecting to differentiate himself from his competitors!

Why is imagination so critical?

I say imagination does not just matter, it is critical for any industry that is not immune from change in customer preferences, in competitors and competition, and in technological disruptions.  Why?  Let me share with you the insight of a particularly insightful philosopher:

” An animal has not enough imagination to draw up a project of life other than the mere monotonous repetitions of previous actions ….  

If life is not realisation of a program, intelligence becomes a purely mechanical function without discipline and orientation.  One forgets too easily that intelligence, however keen, cannot furnish its own direction and therefore is unable to attain to actual technical discoveries.  It does not know by itself what to prefer among countless “inventable” things and is lost in their unlimited possibilities.  Technical capacity can arise only in an entity whose intelligence functions in the service of an imagination pregnant not with technical, but vital projects.”  Jose Ortega Y Gasset

Put differently, there are limitations to reason.  Reason is limited by reason. Reason keeps one restricted to the comfort zone.  And it is great for as long as the environment does not change.  Imagination is needed to create/shape new environments and to deal with environments that are in the process of change.

Take Amazon.  Was it not borne out of the imagination of Jeff Bezos?  Take Starbucks.  Was it not borne out of the imagination of Howard Schultz?  Take Zappos?  Was it not borne out of Nick Swinmurn?  And was it not imagination (of being the company known for great service across the world) that enabled the Zappos leadership team to put Zappos’ existence at stake to reach for that which was imagined?  Think Vodafone. Was it not borne out of the imagination of mobile telecommunications?  The list is endless.

What has this got to excelling at the game of becoming customer-centric, at being a customer experience master?  

Everything.  In my travels what shows up for me?  Obsession with the technology of customer service, of customer experience, of customer-centricity.  When I speak ‘technology’ I am not just pointing at IT systems.  I am pointing at obsession with the means/methods/tools – the rational domain of the engineer.  What does not show up for me, what do I not encounter?  An imagination pregnant with possibilities and vital projects to which customer service, the customer experience, and customer-centricity can contribute.

Imagination is critical to making the shift.  Why?  Because that is what is needed to move out of the prison of the ‘making the numbers’ and sticking to the comfort of the ‘known and best practice’.  What made Steve Jobs great?  At the technical level Steve Wozniak was supreme. Why is he simply a footnote?  Because he lacked the imagination of Steve Jobs.  Put differently, Jobs was the poet, philosopher and the founder of a new religion around the user experience.  Allow me to illustrate this through the insight of Jose Ortega Y Gasset:

The vital program is pretechnical. Mans’ technical capacity – that is, the technician – is in charge of inventing the simplest and safest way to meet man’s necessities.  But these …. are in their turn inventions. They are what man in each epoch, nation, or individual aspires to be. Hence there exists a first, pre technical invention par excellence, the original desire…  which part of man is it, or rather what sort of men are they, that are in special charge of the vital program?  Poets, philosophers, politicians, founders of religions, discoverers of new values…. the engineer is dependent on them all. Which explains why they all rank higher than he…”

Summing up

Put simply, without poets and philosophers like Jobs your engineers like Wozniak are not going to get you far in the game of customer service, customer experience, customer-centricity.