Your Customers Have Questions. But Are You Actually Listening?

One CEO this contributor knows spends two weeks a year in his company's call center, talking to customers directly.

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By Shaun Belding

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"Our company," the CEO's voiced boomed cheerfully at the company's annual leadership conference, "is an industry leader in customer experience. I'm immensely proud of your efforts in establishing our global reputation for innovation and customer-centricity." As the applause of the 300 or so company managers began to die down, I glanced at the executive vp sitting next to me. She appeared to be choking on some arugula.

"Yikes," she muttered under under her breath.

Related: How to Really Hear and Use Customer Feedback

I understood where she was coming from. The problem was it was highly unlikely that most of our company's customers would have agreed with our CEO's assessment.

In fairness to him, his comments weren't entirely unfounded; the company's monthly metrics on customer experience did tell an exciting story. And, as for the marketing department collecting the data, its staff had used common and well-established methodologies.

But what our leader didn't realize, was how much of the overall story was data-driven fiction. Specifically, the company's net promotor score -- a single-question metric that predicts customers' loyalty by assessing their likelihood to recommend a company or brand -- was being manipulated by the front-line employees and managers.

The likely reason was that their bonuses were based on those scores. In an effort to incentivize employees to deliver positive customer experiences, the company had built a bonus structure around the score.

That remuneration plan -- a good idea in theory -- had unfortunate, unintended consequences. Unbeknownst to senior leadershp, employees on the front line had figured out how to artificially inflate the numbers to optimize their bonuses (a problem we had discovered two days earlier during a customer experience audit).

A secondary set of metrics also being used came from a simple customer satisfaction survey. Again, the intention was good, but the questions being asked were not the right ones.

"Yikes," indeed.

The fatal mistake most companies make

The mounting evidence around the importance of customer experience is irrefutable. A 2018 study by the Temkin Group found that improving customer experience increases the likelihood of customers returning, by 350 percent. These are hard numbers to ignore, and are the reason why so many companies have now made customer experience a primary focus. Despite the promise of wonderful things, however, a 2019 study by CustomerThink suggested that fewer than 25 percent of companies' customer experience initiatives are actually working. What's going on?

Perhaps the biggest culprit is a common and fatal mistake most companies make right from the beginning: In their efforts to crawl inside their customers' brains, companies typically turn to surveys, scoring systems and qualitative metrics. Those tools ask customers to rate their experience and give their opinions on what needs to be improved. They ask if the customers would recommend the company to others.

Certainly such questions might be useful at some point. But they are an absolutely terrible place to start.

Customers live in the moment.

Everyone loves quantitative metrics. Why wouldn't we? We use them to create pretty graphs. And they help us generate hard numbers to guide and support our initiatives. The problem with customer experience surveys, however, is that they are attempting to quantify fluid and fluctuating personal emotions. And, this is tricky at best. Trickier still is relying on that data to make effective decisions.

The reality is that customers don't think strategically. They don't see your business through the same lens as you -- not even close. What's more, they're rarely analytical about their experiences. They don't think, Wow, the website is easy to navigate!

Or, Wow, this person returned my call within 3.5 minutes!

Or, He (or she) asked me more than six questions ... This person empathized with my situation ... this customer creatively searched for a win-win resolution.

Related: How You Can Take Advantage of Twitter's New 'Customer Feedback' Tool

Instead, customers just feel stuff -- in the moment. They interact in real time, instinctively and emotionally. They get annoyed at things that are missing that seem obvious to them. They experience happiness when they experience a caring employee or a nice surprise. These feelings are immediate, fluid and visceral.

Wondering how your company can elicit feelings like these? Here are the things you need to capture in order to understand your customers.

Mindset first, metrics later

To make any meaningful improvement in customer experience, begin at the above-described visceral level. Stop asking customers to analyze their experiences on your terms, and stop looking at numbers. Instead, see the experiences you are currently creating through the same fluid, emotional lens your customers do. In short, approach the world with a "customer" mindset.

Talk with your customers.

How do you capture your customers' mindsets? Easy. Talk with them. Talk with a lot of them. Not in some controlled focus group, but in real time -- when you can see and feel their visceral experience. You'll be amazed at what you will learn.

A longtime friend, and one of the brightest people I know, several years ago recognized the need for having a customer mindset. He's the CEO of a large company, who now spends two weeks a year in one of its call centers. There, he talks with customers, deals with issues and interacts with the other call center employees.

This isn't an Undercover Boss kind of thing -- only the customers don't know who he is. He tells me that these two weeks "ground" him, and that he learns more about his company during his call center stint than through any other means. It's a fascinating exercise, and everyone I know who's tried it has said the same thing.

Then there's Alison Gutterman, CEO of Jelmar; she and her team actually went into the homes of customers, under the guise of being anonymous researchers, to talk about their flagship CLR products (they did reveal their true identity later in the interview).

In her company blog, Gutterman later stated, "The experience was nothing short of eye-opening, not to mention humbling."

Listen for "why" and "I wish."

When you take the initiative to actually talk with real customers, you find that your greatest insights don't come from asking these people questions. Instead, your "aha" moments come when you begin hearing the reflexive questions and statements that your customers already have for you. The most important ones begin with "why" and "I wish."

"Why": When you hear questions like: Why does [the company] do it this way? or Why don't they just ...? you're getting great insights into the little things that might be negatively impacting a customer's experience.

"I wish": "I wish..." statements are common, and immensely valuable. I wish they would make this easier, I wish I could just talk with a human and I wish they would train their people better (or similar comments) are pretty powerful clues on how you can improve your customer experience.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is famous for using Twitter to pick up on customer clues and take decisive action. Richard Branson, in his book, The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership, tells how his own first-hand observations led to the decision to change pre-meal hot towels to cold towels for customers flying out of hot climates like Las Vegas.

Related: How Listening to All Customer Feedback Could Destroy Your Product

One week could change your world.

Try it. Seriously. Carve just one week out of your busy schedule and embed yourself on the front line where all the action is. Kind of like Undercover Boss but without the wigs and disguises. Turn off the analytical part of your brain and just listen, feel and experience. I guarantee you'll walk away with at least one "aha" piece of insight that will influence your future decisions.

Shaun Belding

CEO, The Belding Group of Companies

Shaun Belding is the author of six books, including The Journey to WOW! He is is CEO of The Belding Group of Companies, a global leadership and customer-service training company and consultancy. He speaks globally on topics of customer experience, leadership and positive workplace cultures.

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