Are You Talking to Your Customers?

Imagine working for years at a company, developing products or services, and not knowing what your customers think of them. I think the vast majority of employees are in that situation–nearly completely disconnected from their customers. Yes, companies have technical support people and sales people who talk to customers, but what about executives and senior managers? The people making the big decisions often have little if any “customer capital” — or knowledge of what the customers want and think.

This even happens in internet companies. In 1999 when Curt Allen was CEO of MyFamily.com he asked the management team (about 12 of us) how many of us had talked to a customer in the last 30 days. No one had.

I felt indicted. So I decided to change that. I started having phone calls with customers every week. And I invited others to sit in on the calls with me. We got incredible feedback from some of our best MyFamily.com customers. It was wonderful. It changed our opinions and ideas about so many things.

When I was VP Marketing at MyFamily.com in 2001, I required my marketing employees to spend a day a week at our call center listening to customer calls, so that they could be aware of what the customers were thinking and saying. This had a major impact on all of us.

Now I hear about some of the changes that are happening at Ancestry.com and MyFamily.com and I am absolutely certain that they are not being implemented because our customers are asking for them — but because someone in management is just deciding to make some changes. Like discontinuing the Ancestry Daily News. And pricing. And not providing access to new databases for 10 days every time we post a new one, the way we used to. Huge numbers of people are disappointed by changes like this, but I’m not sure anyone is listening.

Way too many big decisions are made without understanding what the customers want!

(Note: I have not been involved at MyFamily.com since February 2002. My posts are simply my personal opinion.)

In February of this year I assumed management of LDS Media, one of Provo Labs portfolio companies, and quickly realized I wasn’t personally getting feedback from our customers.

So to change that, we put a feedback form on every page of our site. Yesterday I got 11 suggestions from customers and two want to have phone conversations.

I also started a blog for LDSMedia.com which I believe will turn into an ongoing conversation with our customers. Every time we add new content to our search engine we’ll blog about it.

We are going to do the same thing at worldhistory.com and with our other vertical search engines.

The process of asking for input from customers and blogging about it and then acting on their suggestions and blogging when you’ve done it is a wonderful cycle.

I heard a prominent VC in Utah complain that the biggest problem with companies is not understanding what the customers really want.

Every company can easily address this if the CEO will take the lead in asking for and evaluating customer suggestions and in having conversations with them regularly and asking everyone else too as well.

8 Comments

  1. As a veteran of the trenches this is execellent advice for executive management. One simple suggestion is involving
    executives in manning the booths at Trade Shows (even if it is only for a couple hours). This is a great way for them to
    gain a deeper understanding for what is going on with the core business and interface with the cusotmers and vendors.

  2. Thank you for saying what should be obvious… the Cluetrain lives! If a company isn’t listening, companies that are smaller, lighter and faster (buzzwords that just mean they’re listening to customers) will appear in lightspeed to snatch marketshare in milliseconds.

    In the attention economy, customer’s won’t take the energy or time to complain. They’ll simply look the other way. They won’t even see you go bankrupt. They just don’t care anymore because you don’t care about them. Companies are no longer in charge of the economy, the consumer is.

  3. Lovely stuff. Many a times corporations end-up in satisifying the whims and fancies of their senior executives who have never been to their market or talked to customers for long. They keep taking orders knowing it sis wrong and don’t change. All employes senior, middle or junior level need a reality check. In fact, I had an instance of one client in India Unilever which I believe insisted that people can talk in meetings regarding customers and products only if they have spent a min 100 hrs. Each employee was given a card and if the cardd did not whow 100 hours then they had just shut-up and listen!!

  4. Joe Martel

    Recognizing the need to listen to customers is a huge step in understanding the customers’ needs. Converting those disparate remarks and observations into product features is a more difficult task however. Methodologies like “Contextual Design” provide a recipe to transform the customer talk into useful product requirements by doing meaningful customer inquiry, consolidating across user groups, and redesigning the “features” into powerful solutions.

  5. So often we get caught up in the
    logistics of our business that we forget
    who we’re actually helping – the customer.
    You would think that this is obvious,
    but even big companies miss the mark.
    Thanks for the post!

  6. It Takes the Head Honcho To Fix Customer Service

    Imagine being a CEO or an executive of a company.  You’re at the top of the game looking down and don’t have a clue what your customers are thinking about your company.  This is what happened to Curt Allen, CEO…

  7. You’re right on here. I turned the tide at my last turnaround by simple scheduling monthly customers calls. Not only did we get valuable feedback, but the attitude of our customers changed as well. Way too many companies miss the boat on this.

    -Peter

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