For Better Moments of Truth, Ask the Right Questions

One of the easiest mistakes to make (and fix) when serving customers is forgetting to ask what they want. It's done with the best intentions. We figure we know what customers want; after all, we're customers too, and we know what we would like.

Unfortunately, this approach suffers from a bias grounded in the fact that we, as vendors, might know more than customers about the products in question, which might just cause us to skip over some obvious things. But what's obvious to us might not be obvious to our customers.

In the past year or so, I've read my share of articles and posts on business school Web sites and in their magazines. I've also published a book about how we deal with customers. I discovered many times that the customer experience we talk about is not ours but theirs, and we need to understand it before we can make progress.

One article that was especially useful "To Keep Your Customers, Keep It Simple" by Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman, appeared recently in The Harvard Business Review. In it, the authors said simply that sometimes customers just want to get on with the long list of things they need to accomplish and dealing with a vendor is only one of them. At these times, the authors say customers want simplicity, easy access to information, fast and accurate answers to their questions, and definitely not the Hollywood production of a customer experience we think of by default sometimes.

Avoiding what I call errors of commission is actually quite simple. Ask your customers what they want and need and then deliver it. You're right if you are thinking that it's not as simple as it sounds. Getting customers to tell you what they need is hard work, because, quite often, they don't know. They understand that something needs to happen, but they might not be able to articulate what it is. At times like this, asking customers directly what they want, even if you pose the question to a group of loyal people who really like your stuff, won't be terribly useful.

I've found the folks at Communispace understand this. As an alternative, they suggest asking customers how they feel. Asking about feelings taps into a deeper place that can provide the insights we need when, under other conditions, our logical brains might get in the way. How do you feel about using a product, the time you spend, the results you get for yourself or for other people? What are some of your memories about prior times when you've been in similar circumstances? This question set will, of course, be different for varying products and conditions, so you'll have to come up with relevant questions for your business and its products.

Now, as a practical matter, this approach won't be effective if someone is on a call with an emergency, which brings up a very important point. Asking open-ended questions about feelings is not a one-and-done thing; it's part of our ongoing work in a highly connected and socialized world. As a vendor, it's best to ask questions about feelings often and to then build approaches to customers that address what you discover during questioning.

When vendors do this they can discover that customer needs are not all over the map but that they cluster in a few areas. I call these clusters moments of truth because they are repeatable times when vendors simply have to come through on a specific issue that many customers care about. Vendors can prepare for moments of truth so that when a customer develops a need the vendor is ready. In this way, customers experience moments of truth and their memories of the encounter will be positive.

At the end of the day, this approach is not very different from what we started with. The big difference is that the original scenario was based on assumptions. Back in the day, gut-based assumptions were all we had; sometimes they were right, and sometimes they were off the mark. But modern technologies make it possible to replace those assumptions with data-driven facts, if we start by collecting the data.

One final point: Collecting data is fine but life gets easier when dealing with customers if we map out or model our interactions. Not long ago that meant filling up a whiteboard, but whiteboards are hard to carry around. Today, with journey mapping products, you can do your modeling and mapping digitally and share your work with a team that can help enhance it. Journey mapping is still an up-and-coming thing, and many people use it more or less exclusively in marketing. That's a good place to start, but, like many previous good ideas, don't be surprised if it jumps the fence into other areas. Maybe you could be a pioneer?

Denis Pombriant is managing principal at Beagle Research Group.