News & Views

Opinion / Listening In

by Contagious Team

Service design and innovation consultant, Matt Edgar, warns that consumers can sense whether brands are genuinely looking to co-create or if they are just paying lip service to listening

I sense a new seriousness in marketing right now.

Maybe it’s a realism wrought in the recessions, when customers put aside the fripperies of the long boom and expected the brands they bought from to do likewise.

Or maybe it’s because we have more data than ever before. A cohort of marketeers have grown up with online analytics and optimisation in the space where previous generations had only the black box of creative bravado.

This reaches its apogee in the lean start-up movement that emphasises getting to customers fast, followed by rapid, iterative experimentation, continuous tweaking and learning by doing. I heartily approve of all these things.

Yet I fear that sometimes we’re alienating the very customers we seek to learn from, by forgetting they are people and treating them as data points.

This was brought home to me recently when I was surveyed by three organisations: a train company about my experiences as a passenger, Ofsted about my children’s school, and a bank about my online account.

The warning sign? Amid all the checkboxes and entreaties that 'your views are important to us,' not one of them managed to ask me an open question. My responses had to fit into their pre-ordained demand for data, or not be heard at all.

I could picture the PowerPoint deck for the marketing director: '80% of customers want to search their transaction history.' I’d tick the 'strongly agree' box to that -- except that there was nowhere for me to add one critical qualification: 'in the third-party service I use for my other household finances.'

Maybe they also ran focus groups to reveal this kind of nuance, maybe deep ethnographic studies. Whatever. To the customer receiving this survey they came across as just another organisation paying lip-service to listening.

Truly co-creating service with customers demands a dialogue. This type of interaction is fuzzier to measure, slipperier to manage, but as human beings we know instinctively when we’re in it.

In their essay ‘Co-creating the voice of the customer’, Bernie Jaworski and Ajay K Kohli list the following features of a co-creating dialogue:

  • Is the conversation end point clear or unclear?
  • Do the comments build on those that came before them?
  • Is there a willingness to explore assumptions that underlie the dialogue?
  • Is the conversation exploratory: no topic is 'off-limits?'
  • Is there an eagerness for new ideas?
  • Do the firm and the customer each shape the structure and content of the conversation?

Does that sound complicated? It doesn’t have to be. A few weeks after I bought my new computer, Apple emailed to ask how it was going. The timing was right, and so was the single, powerful, open question they asked at the end of their online survey: 'What one thing would you change about your Macbook Pro?'

You wouldn’t know it from the mythology, but I reckon the people in Cupertino listen to their customers more acutely than they let on. Here was a conversation that didn’t feel like market research at all, more like customer service, and I have no doubt that had I flagged up a problem with my Macbook they’d have contacted me to sort it out.

Customers can tell when listening is a machine-mediated box-ticking exercise held at arm’s length from everyday service delivery. If we’re serious about closing the gap between insight and action, those of us on the inside of organisations need to communicate openly with people on the outside -- and that starts with asking them open questions.

Image Credit / Gary A.K.