What can the election teach us about customers?

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Once again, the pollsters got it wrong.

This article is the first of many examining the reasons why, and I’m sure we can expect another round of ferocious introspection from the polling industry.

Perhaps future polls will be more reliable.

Is there anything the rest of us can learn from what just happened? I think so, and I think there are some particularly pertinent lessons for the way we think about customers.

Margins of error matter

At the beginning of the night, it looked like a comfortable victory for Clinton, but if you examine the margins of error (as in this excellent New York Times graphic from their election forecast page) you can see that it was much less clear-cut than that.
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Margins of error are not a detail for the data geeks, they tell us what we know. Make sure that when you make decisions about customers, you’re making those decisions on firm foundations.

Perception is reality

People talk about a post-truth society. The fact is that there never was a “truth society”. Perception has always been more powerful than reality in shaping the decisions that people make.

There are all sorts of psychological and social mechanisms that underpin this. Social filtering, confirmation bias, the repetition principle.These may be becoming more powerful, but they have always been there.

With customers, it makes it incredibly important to tell customers about the changes you make. It also means that managing how customers feel is more important than what you actually do. Disney’s queue management is a great example of this. The length of the wait becomes secondary if you can make waiting fun.

Focus on what matters to customers…

…and not what you think should matter to them. The only way to deliver a great customer experience is to get inside their heads and really understand them, the context in which they live, and the things that they value.

Be prepared for a shock.

Qualitative research is a great tool for understanding how your customers see the world. It can give you an incredibly rich view of the context within which your product or service features in  their lives.

Guess what? It’s less important to them than it is to you. They didn’t read that carefully crafted email you sent them. They’re probably not the mythical “brand loyalists” we all wish for, but almost no one has.

Find out what customers want, and give it to them, and you will create great customer experiences. Great experiences lead to customer loyalty, not because of who you are, but because you understand who they are.

Simple messages are powerful

The reality is that most customers don’t care very much about what you do. Their lives are busy, the perceived differentiation between you and your competitors is small, and you’re all saying the same things.

Find a way to be different.

Package it into a simple, clear, message.

Make people believe it.

If you can do that the possibility to disrupt the status quo is enormous, as both Trump and the Brexit campaign have shown this year. It’s a powerful mix, but it’s only the beginning. There’s a crucial fourth step.

Deliver.

 

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Stories are about change

noun_2005Storytelling is a favourite topic of mine.

On our storytelling workshop we go through a whole load of different ways in which organisations can use customer insight to communicate more effectively with their customers and staff.

I also try to wear a storyteller’s hat when I’m finding the best way to visualise and present data.

Why is it so effective?

There’s lots of evidence for the benefits of story. Story forces you to articulate why and how a particular course of action will work. It increases the emotional impact of research and brings customers to life. Those are important strengths, but the big one is that stories are the best way to achieve change.

Stories are all about change.

Duarte‘s useful model for the shape of an effective story makes crystal clear how fundamental change is to the argument that a storyteller is making. A good story shows our audience a future they want to achieve, contrasts that with the status quo, and shows them how to get from here to there.

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Stories in fiction describe change, stories in business drive change.

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Attention: getting it, keeping it, using it

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One of the excellent speakers at the MRS “Best of Impact” event yesterday was a Creative Director specialising in data visualisation and infographics.

Naturally my ears pricked up—I’m always open to stealing ideas.

As well as being a very engaging talker, Tobias Sturt was really clear on a number of important principles for infographic design based on how our brains work:

  • Symbolic processing (e.g. icons) is quicker than verbal processing, but sometimes it’s less clear.
  • Recall is influenced by colour, faces, novel chart types, quirky images, etc.

But information design is not just about effective communication. It’s also about getting, and keeping, attention. This is a crucial role for what some characterise as graphic “decoration”. “Beauty” might be a better word. It’s something that David McCandless excels at, and Stephen Few objects to.

Those of us with important customer stories to tell have learned (the hard way) that getting attention is just as important as communicating facts.

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Rules vs. Recipes – Process and Trust

noun_222171There are three types of cook…

Some people follow the recipe exactly, carefully weighing every ingredient and reading through all the instructions twice before they start.

Others use the instructions as a guide, but tweak the meal as they go by adding more of this ingredient and less of that. They might even leave out an ingredient entirely, or substitute something else.

Then there are the ones who scoff at the idea of following a recipe, and simply make it up based on instinct and experience.

Which gets the best results?

They can all work pretty well, but in my experience the most reliably good meals are the ones cooked by those who taste and make judgements as they go.

Using the recipe as a jumping-off point, rather than a rigid rulebook, allows the cook to adapt to minor differences in the size or taste of ingredients, and to cater for individual preferences. Sometimes the ones who just make it up may hit higher highs, but they also sink to much lower lows with the odd inedible disaster.

Customer service is exactly the same.

There’s nothing wrong with having a process. It’s very helpful for staff, especially the less experienced, to have a clear sense of what we’re trying to achieve and how we get there. Like a reliable recipe, a good process should give us the sense that if we follow these steps we won’t go far wrong.

But a recipe book is not a rulebook, and your processes shouldn’t be either. Good service happens when people use their judgement to make minor variations to a process if they think it will result in the best outcome for the customer.

Season to taste.

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Telling the story with data

Triangle

This is a diagram from my course about data presentation and infographics.

I use it as a starting point to discuss the skills you need to do the job well, summarised as “telling a compelling story with integrity”.

The idea of the diagram is that too much or too little of any of the three axes tends to be a bad thing.

For instance, too heavy on the “statistician” axis might mean that your charts are accurate and robust, but impenetrable to many people. Too light on the same axis, and you might be committing basic analytical mistakes (perhaps ignoring random measurement error).

It’s a rare person who embodies all of those skills to a truly expert level, which is one reason the best infographics often involve a team of people.

 

Finding your audience

It isn’t necessarily a case of shooting for the middle of the triangle. There’s a zone of acceptable variation around the middle in which competent and engaging data storytelling happens.

What’s appropriate for a scientific publication is not appropriate for your board, or for frontline staff. It’s all about getting the balance right for your audience.

Obvious? Yes, but it’s worth thinking about what it means in practice. Which “rules” of data storytelling are unbreakable, and which need to be tailored according to your audience?

 

How much do we know about what works?

Stephen Few takes a dim view of infographics which he sees as prioritising shallow gimmicks over effective visual communication. David McCandless has been on the receiving end of severe critiques.

He also points out that more work needs to be done to test which graphic forms are most effective, rather than relying on opinion. I agree – we can’t begin to pretend we’re working in a serious field until we approach these questions scientifically.

Robert Kosara has published interesting work showing that pie charts, much derided by experts, are more effective than we thought.

But is communication our only aim? Not always.

 

Telling the story

The science of which data graphics work most effectively is only part of the equation. The best graphic in the world is wasted if no one looks at it.

Let’s go back to the idea of storytelling.

What makes a story? Dave Trott, in one of his excellent blog posts, quotes Steven Pressfield’s simple version. A story consists of Hook, Build, and Payoff.

If we apply that to data storytelling I think it makes it easier for us to choose our place in the triangle.

  • Hook: we need to capture the attention of our audience, with something relevant and/or fascinating. This is where McCandless excels.
  • Build: there should be enough depth to reward engagement with the data.
  • Payoff: there’s got to be a reason for looking. What am I going to do differently as a result of spending time with this data?

 

 

 

 

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Trust: is honesty more important than competence?

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Most theories of trust see it as multi-dimensional.

The details vary (some links below), but mostly boil down loosely to two things:

  • Competence
  • Integrity

Understanding how they relate to each other is really important.

For instance, Stephen M.R. Covey points out that the way banks set about repairing their reputations after the financial crisis was exactly wrong, from a trust perspective.

Their response was to employ lots of people to ensure they were “compliant”.

That’s all very well, and perhaps even necessary, but it won’t do anything to promote trust. Compliance, and rules more generally, are what we create when we can’t or don’t trust people.

Competence is a situational judgement. Each of us is competent in certain areas, and not competent in others. Moreover, competence does not require infallibility—customers are quite forgiving of mistakes (as long as you admit you’re wrong and make an effort to put things right).

Integrity is about who you are, and it’s much more long-term. If I lose trust in your integrity then it’s very hard for you to win it back.

The implications for customer service are clear—don’t be afraid of admitting a mistake, and never ever lie to a customer.

Strange how often we do the opposite, isn’t it?

 


We run a 1/2 day briefing on trust as it relates to Employee Engagement and Customer Experience. You can find more details on our website.

Three of the best models of trust are:

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Are you measuring importance right?

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One of the universal assumptions about customer experience research is that the topics on your questionnaire are not equally important.

It’s pretty obvious, really.

That means that when we’re planning what to improve, we should prioritise areas which are more important to customers.

Again, pretty obvious.

But how do we know what’s important? That’s where it starts to get tricky, and where we can get derailed into holy wars about which method is best. Stated importance? Key Driver Analysis (or “derived importance”)? Relative importance analysis? MaxDiff?

An interesting article in IJMR pointed out that these decisions are often made, not on the evidence, but according to the preferences of whoever the main decision maker is for a particular project.

Different methods will suggest different priorities, so personal preference doesn’t seem like a good way to choose.

The way out of this dilemma is to stop treating “importance” as a single idea that can be measured in different ways. It isn’t. Stated importance, derived importance and MaxDiff are all measuring subtly different things.

The best decisions come from looking at both stated and derived importance, using the combination to understand how customers see the world, and addressing the customer experience in the appropriate way:

 
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  • High stated, low derived – a given. Minimise dissatisfaction, but don’t try to compete here.
  • Low stated, high derived – a potential differentiator. If your performance is par on the givens, you may get credit for being better than your competitors here.
  • High stated, high derived – a driver. This is where the bulk of your priorities will sit. Vital, but often “big picture” items that are difficult to action.

That’s a much more rounded view than choosing a single “best” measure to prioritise, and more accurately reflects how customers think about their experience.

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A simple test of trust

noun_29932I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about trust recently.

While researching my talk at our client conference this year, I dug deep into different theories and models of trust. The more I dug, the more I became convinced that trust is the single most important underlying factor in almost every aspect of our working lives; as organisations, employees, and customers.

Interesting stuff.

But it’s nice to step back from the detail sometimes, and reduce all of the theory to one simple idea. As he so often does, Seth Godin nailed it, and it’s a frightening thought:

Organisations routinely lie to their customers.

Seth gives the example of “unexpectedly high call volumes”, but we could think of a thousand more. Lies that we tell customers, knowing full well that they know we’re lying.

So why are we surprised that they don’t trust us?

 

 

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Are you Sherlock or Alexander?

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Cause and effect is tricky.

It’s a natural human instinct to try to understand why things happen.

In fact we can’t help ourselves—psychologists have had fun getting people to ascribe narratives, personalities, and motivations to little animated shapes.

But we also know that we can be easily fooled, and that we don’t always agree about causes.

 

Experiment versus observation

Scientists have developed clear formal approaches to cause and effect. The randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, trial is the gold standard.

Unfortunately it’s not always possible to use a controlled trial.

Take smoking as an example. There’s no realistic way of testing the impact of smoking on lung cancer in an experiment; but almost everyone now accepts it is a major cause.

Getting there took a lot of work, and sensible use of the “Bradford Hill” criteria for establishing causation from observational data.

 

Do you need to prove it?

When you use customer insight as a springboard for service design or innovation, you are making assumptions about causes. Customers feel like this because we did that. Customers would feel like this if we did that.

Often that will lead to arguments about what we should or should not do.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to prove your guesses about cause and effect beyond reasonable doubt. That takes careful, patient, detective work.

More often the most effective approach is to take a leaf out of Alexander the Great’s book, and simply cut the knot instead of untangling it.

Either way, stop debating what to do—prove it, or decide.

 

 


If the ins and outs of causality interest you, have a look at this two-part article I wrote back when I had hair:

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Insight & internal comms: a match made in heaven

noun_marriage_192896Every internal communications team I know is crying out for content.

Every customer insight team I know is crying out for airtime and tools to get their messages to staff.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

So why do we not see more use of customer (and employee) insight in internal comms? I think the main problem is that we, as insight people, have tended to be boring.

We know there’s loads of brilliant stuff in our 60 slides of bar charts, so we send the slide pack off to internal comms. Then we’re a bit hurt they don’t do anything with it.

Bar charts are boring.

Stories are interesting.

But stories are not something that simply emerge from talking to customers. What distinguishes a story is not that it is human (although that’s important), but that it has a point.

To turn insight into effective comms you need to become a storyteller. That means you have to have the courage to craft a story for internal comms to tell, or you could work with them to craft a story together.

Figure out who your audience is, what interests them, and how your insight can change that for the better.

Let customers tell their stories, and flag up the turning points that sent their narratives in different directions.

Stories are told, not found.

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