Stop Listening To Customers… Sometimes

In a recent post, I listed valuable quotes from Steve Jobs. Here’s one of them:

You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.

Jobs seems to be saying that you shouldn’t bother listening to customers. Is that what companies should do?

My take: No. Companies should not stop listening to customers. But they do need to understand what they’re listening for and recognize the limitation to some listening systems.

To start the discussion, here’s a basic loyalty model that I like to use. It’s based on defining a simple hierarchy of customer needs:

  • Expectations: What customers think they’ll get from a company, which is heavily based on their perception of the company.
  • Core needs: What customers want from a company, which is heavily influenced by their perception of what is normal and mainstream in an industry.
  • Desires: What customers really want, which is not based on any company or industry activity and is often difficult for them to articulate.

As companies meet these needs, they build stronger emotional connections with customers. At the highest level, when they meet customers’ desires, companies end up with engaged customers — the raving fans that will promote and defend the brand.

Going back to Jobs’ comment, I agree that you can’t rely on simple customer feedback to identify their desires. Consumers weren’t telling Apple that they wanted a new MP3 player, iTunes, an Apple phone, or even Apple retail stores. Those “breakthrough” experiences came from understanding what customers really desire. In technology, desires can be even more difficult to articulate because people can’t even imagine the possibility of future capabilities.

Most customer listening efforts, which are often part of voice of the customer programs, can uncover expectations and many of customers’ core needs. But they are weak at uncovering desires. To grow the number of engaged customers, companies need to think of less traditional ways of getting customer feedback to uncover desires, like ethnography. It also helps to have a visionary like Steve Jobs who can envision the potential of technology and the evolution of consumer desires.

Unfortunately, most companies don’t have someone like Steve Jobs to rely on.

The bottom line: if you listen to customers, you might not hear their desires

Wells Fargo Improves Communications With Ethnography

Robin Beers (VP of Customer Insights) and Helene Alunni-Botteri (Vice President, Strategic Planning) at Wells Fargo briefed me about a research project in which the bank used ethnographic techniques to examine its written communications. It was a pretty novel approach, so I published a research report about the effort. Here are some of the highlights of their project.

The objectives.Wells Fargo (like all large banks) sends a wide variety of communications, both online and offline, to their customers. Wells Fargo wanted to make sure that the collection of these communications were “customer friendly.” In particular, the bank wanted to see how customers responded to its “Writing With C-A-R-E” (Consistent, Approachable, Resepectful, and Empathetic) guidelines.

The study.The bank recruited 20 customers who matched their three target personas to comment on all of the communications (e.g., account service notification, marketing solicitations) they received from Wells Fargo and other organizations over a 30-day period. These customers called a toll-free number to share their immediate reaction about the documents and they also kept a scrapbook in which they wrote comments about each communication. The bank brought the most engaged customers together to debrief them in-person about their scrapbooks.

Lessons learned. Here are some of the insights that Wells Fargo took away from the research:

  • The bank’s communications were meeting the basic needs of customers, but were falling short on the humanistic dimensions of “approachable” and “empathetic.”
  • Customers wanted the bank to communicate like it knew them, similar to other communications they received from organizations like AARP.
  • Marketing messages, especially those with presumptive language like “Congratulations!” or “Good News,” were viewed quite negatively; customers used words like “ploy” and “scheme” to describe them.
  • The bank could mitigate negative reactions to bad news like a notice of insufficient funds if the communications provided relevant advice.
  • Many consumers view the bank’s Website as the primary visual reference point; noticing differences with layout, color, and other design elements in the communications.
  • To ensure that the results were actionable, key stakeholders were engaged throughout the process. The findings were “socialized” with 700+ content writers across Wells Fargo during 30+ workshops.

Thanks. Thank you Robin and Helene for sharing this information.

The bottom line: There’s no substitute for the customers’ point of view.

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