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First, Be a Person

Simple Ways to Have a Real Conversation with Your Customer.

Emotions are a brave and universal thing. A primal thing. The thing that drives connection between people, whether they're discussing controversial ideas in a field of cubicles or proposing marriage in a dimly lit restaurant. Emotions explain why people act the way they do- even if those feelings are ‘irrational.’ Managing this element of human behavior can also be a major stumbling block for organizations trying to build skillsets around authentic connection with the customer.

In many respects, we may do ourselves a disservice by trying to remove emotions from our professional identity, render ourselves as objective as possible, and keep our feelings guarded. Emotional distance can put us at a massive disadvantage, leaving us to build new inroads to authenticity and connection in professional environments, where it may feel really uncomfortable. This is particularly evident when it comes to Voice of Customer. We've created a technical term to refer to some very human ideas- connection, vulnerability, and honesty. Your customer wants to be happy, and your business needs to make money. You have to figure it out.

The true strength in any scenario is understanding the 'why' as completely as you understand the 'what.' Your 'what' is really just a symptom. Important to understand, because a symptom can kill you, but understanding symptoms doesn't help you resolve a problem. To anticipate symptoms, you need to understand the 'why.'

For example, my kid used to eat puréed carrots like she was eating six layer chocolate cake. Now, she's smacking those tiny containers out of my hand as soon as they're at arm’s length. Why? Because I gave her the real thing- she knows there is a better carrot, one that provides all the sensory pleasures of chewing and grabbing and throwing. Trying to fix the 'what' instead of understanding the 'why' is a useless activity. Real carrot is way more fun than mushed carrot. Nothing will change that.

Collecting great VOC is an important skillset for your organization to have for all the obvious reasons, but it’s not necessarily a skillset that feels natural. There are several simple ideas I keep in mind.

  1. First, be a person. Here is my radical proposal- labels like 'customer' or 'consumer’ don't really belong in your head while completing VOC work. Think of your interview as a conversation with another person, it’s that simple. It's a conversation between two humans, imperfect and honest at best, and it is useless without real connection. Applying labels that add unnecessary formality to a conversation just creates barriers.

  2. Be more like your best friend, or someone you find irresistibly magnetic. We all know those people; they're exceptional listeners. They probably shut up for long periods of time to let you speak your mind. They don't stop listening to judge you, insult you, or try to change you. They want to understand you and help you. There are countless classes, courses, and certifications designed to make anyone a better listener. Ask questions that build off the conversation; don't make a creepy amount of eye contact or share overly personal details. Before you get far enough into a discussion to worry about oversharing, simply remember to listen. Learn. Empathize. No matter how excited you are about an idea you may have, listen to your fellow human’s problems. He probably isn't super interested in learning more about you.

  3. Understand better, not perfectly. Great VOC won't give you a complete understanding of anything. Learn to look at VOC like you're controlling a fall. An engineer once told me, to understand how someone walks, understand they are always avoiding a wipeout. The long-term success of any one idea is always about controlling its failure. Fight off the fall, or understand when an idea’s life cycle is complete. How do you gain enough clarity through VOC, collect enough truth, to keep yourself and your product from failing before its time?

  4. Stop telling people what they want. I can sidestep my way around a mall kiosk like no one's business, it's basically a sport. Please don't try to sell me a bedazzled belt buckle, I'm not your customer. If you want to be a belt buckle entrepreneur, you better have a compelling case around why bedazzled belt buckles solve some of society's most pressing problems. Any researcher worth their weight in salt will tell you that you'll never sell a successful product or idea if you're not solving a specific problem.

  5. Know that honesty comes in layers. Get through as many layers as you can. A customer will tell you what you want to hear first, he'll give you the best version of the truth. Most people aren't talking to you for the pure enjoyment of deceiving you. They're careful with their truth because honesty is hard. Truth is disarming, it leaves you at a disadvantage because it often reveals weakness, but your customer's need lies in that weakness. You are asking your customer, a real life imperfect human being, to tell you what hurts, how he wishes he could be better. He has to trust you. You also have to be a real life, imperfect human being. Don't start offering solutions. Don't use big, industry terminology. Don't walk into a conversation with an answer. You know NOTHING until you've completed that conversation. After the interview, you should be honored to know your interviewee's truth, and you should treat it with the kind of deep respect you give your family and closest friends.

Real conversation is hard. You want information that takes you as close to the truth as possible, you can cross reference all the stories later, find commonalities and brainstorm solutions, whatever you want to do in the analysis step. It takes genuine, authentic bonding, sometimes in a matter of minutes. It takes connection. It takes vulnerability. Stop solving and start empathizing. See 'be more like your best friend.'

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