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The Customer Experience Report
January 26, 2013 – An Occasional Newsletter (Vol. 2, No. 1)
Rules for Better Customer Experience: Hacking Your Brain
Brad Feld shared a story about meetings and making them better this week, including the memorable rule #0: Do We Need To Meet? This story made me think about the process of customer engagement and of a few suggestions that can make the process of delivering and receiving the experience better all around (and not just in meetings).
Hack Your Brain to Change the Situation
These suggestions have to do with brain hacks: specifically, the idea of reframing the situation and of suggesting a “Best Practice.” Reframing means to present the scenario so that you can change the way that people see things and suggest an alternate solution.
In my experience, one of the most powerful reframing tools is “The Happy Path” – it’s basically a way of saying “when nothing goes wrong, this is the best expected outcome for the process” – and suggesting this path to the customer. When the customer is closest to the ideal persona (a user model popularized by Alan Cooper), then the combination of the Happy Path and the ideal persona can produce a documentation of the ideal customer experience.
Matching the Happy Path with the Real World
Except when it’s not the ideal customer experience, because as we know, the Happy Path and the Ideal Persona rarely meet. It’s also really important to be able to say noinstead ofmaybe to a customer who’s trying to do something that doesn’t really fit the experience.
It’s tempting to let them wander on and come up with an “almost” solution, and this often causes problems later on from a support or experience perspective when the “almost” solution encounters a hitch or a bug or a change of mind. So how can you introduce a bit of the Happy Path to the customer without diverting them dramatically or by trying to create a kind of customer model that they can’t ever meet?
The Just-in-Time Happy Path
One way to do this – especially in a feature rich product – is to uncover the right solution to a problem that they didn’t know that they have yet. An example from the CRM and Customer Service world is the ability to combine merge text (variables that substitute values from a case, customer, or company) with pre-written or “canned” content. By adding this very simple change, you can turn formulaic content into something a bit more personal, and streamline what could be a tedious manual process.
Let’s say you’re starting a new company, feature, or product. You have an idea that you want to test with some beta customers. So what would you do today to “get out of the building” (in best Steve Blank Lean Startup style) once you’ve done some initial customer development to determine your Minimum Viable Product and have some ideas and data about the kind of customer who might use or provide feedback on your idea? One way to do this to set up a beta program, where you combine your ideas, your preliminary feedback (and some actual people) to see what will happen. (The feedback will likely be both sweet, and a bit tart.)
What are the goals of a beta program?
At face value, the goals of a beta program seem simple: find some potential customers, ask them to use the product, identify bugs, and get feedback on what’s working and what’s not working in a defined period of time. “Customers” probably look the same as the initial persona you identified during your customer development phase, and since you’re looking for a directional indication at this point, you don’t have to get them completely right (the beta program is an extension of your customer development efforts.) “Using the product” and “defining bugs” will work best if you define a few tight scripts at first to help people understand your vision of what they should be doing, and not just what it looks like in your prototype. And “getting feedback” means finding out the most important thing to improve or fix at that point of your development process.
The Perils of Talking to Customers You Know
Finding potential customers is the first step, and also not the easiest. When you start, you’re likely to ask people you know – which is great because they will be more receptive and accommodating of problems, and not so great because they’re biased to give you good feedback – so you need a mix of people you know and don’t know. One way to solve this problem is to ask the people you know to recommend 2-5 people that they know who will provide practical feedback and who don’t know you all that well. Once your group reaches 30 people, you’ll be able to know more confidently that you have at least directional statistical information.
Practical tip: manage the list of customers in a Google Spreadsheet, identifying their name, email, Twitter handle, external ID in your system, “customer type” (this could be ‘experienced, noob, mainstream’ or another taxonomy), the date they joined the beta or the identifier for their cohort group, a comment field, and a “last contacted” date. This will allow you to model the list of beta customers by cohort, give you a way to communicate with them, and provide you with a data structure you can use to pivot their feedback by customer type, externalID, beta cohort, and date range.
Using the Product is Not Following The Instructions
It’s tempting to think that customers (any customers) will “read the manual” and follow your instructions to the “T”. Well, when was the last time you read the manual? It’s important when considering your beta group to include both those people who are likely to follow your instructions, those who are not very imaginative and who just want to “hire your product” to do a job for them, and those who want to break your product or will think of unusual ways to interact. And if you want really great bug descriptions, you need to make it really easy for customers to provide inline feedback and to give them a prompt every time to identify the key items you need to understand what’s going on.
Practical tip: provide instructions for your scenario using multiple learning styles, including listing items in an ordered list (“Step 1, Step 2, Step 3”), asking an open-ended question (“What’s the 1 thing you’d like us to improve”), and communicating in other media, e.g. asking them to record a Skype conversation, a screencast, or setting up a group Google+ Hangout to discuss the “how do you do it” aspect of your product.
The “90-9-1” rule for participation inequality suggests that some of your beta participants are going to give you a LOT of information, and the feedback they provide will be overweighted toward the one or five or ten people who feel really passionate in your first group of 100 or so beta participants. So how can you take what they’re telling you and make it more meaningful? First, you should identify the functional bugs they point out, and fix those: these are potential blockers for any new customers. If you’re not going to fix an issue, log it and let the reporter know you’re placing it in a lower priority queue (and then once every month or so, prune the queue aggressively to remove the “not-urgent not-important” items.) Second, you can use a Kanban or other scrum technique to organize the volume and priority of the work (Asana, Trello, Do, Jira, Pivotal, and others are all good for this task). And third, keep asking your beta testers short surveys frequently (1-3 minutes) to see whether what you think you’re doing is actually working for them.
Practical tip: use some bug tracking software to manage this process. Don’t reinvent the wheel: if you don’t like Jira, Bugzilla, or another solution you can always find a bug tracking template in another tool. And make sure you identify the type of customer for which you’re solving the problem; the severity of the issue (does it stop them from using the product; is it a major deficiency; or is it just nice to have) and the priority (get it done now, get it done soon, log it to see if it becomes more important later).
What’s realistic to expect from your results?
It’s reasonable to think you’ll get feedback, and that some of your customers will like (or even love) what you’re working on for them. And it’s also likely that some will dislike, or even hate, the thing you think is cool. To get the most mileage out of this feedback, use a dedicated email alias or distribution list (e.g. beta-feedback@) to share this information with as wide a group as possible within your company. And view the feedback in the context of the type of customer who’s providing that feedback. When you get positive feedback clustered among multiple people in the same persona in the same area of your product, that’s a good sign you’re heading in the right direction. And then use that feedback as a data input to make decisions: what kind of company do you want to be? Which customers are you serving, and will you serve them better by improving this feature or fixing this bug? If the answer is yes, it’s time to invest time and money in making that change.
One of the best ways to learn how real people view your product is to ask them to complete a set of tasks that you think all customers “should” be able to do. Think of this as a directional usability test, where you can get some feedback on the way “normal” folks use your product without sitting right next to them and telling them how to complete the task. Yet you can also learn a lot by sitting in the same room as someone who has tried your product and just having a conversation. Even if these people are not perfect examples of your persona definitions, setting up “Friends of the Company” sessions are a great way to make a tremendous leap in usability in a short period of time.
“Friends of the Company” sessions might look like this: every two weeks, line up two or three people to visit your office and ask them to complete a common customer task (set up an account, use the product the way they “normally”, and talk through the progress as they do it.) You should have someone from your design team, your engineering team, and your executive team in attendance, and make sure to give the person some homework before they arrive so that you can capture their feedback.
When your F.O.C. session is running, you should use this focused time to listen, learn, and suggest. You can listen by hearing what a “typical” customer does when you’re not around and hear more about the features that people outside of your building think are pain-killers, not vitamins. You can learn by identifying “cringe” moments that show up during the session, and plan which of these items to address and which to log for later effort. And you can suggest by using this time with a customer to bring up ideas that need additional feedback.
It’s important to note that the feedback you receive in these sessions is just that: feedback. It’s not usually enough to make major changes in usability, and it is an amazing way, however, to note little items that trip customers up when you think they should be able to complete (what you consider to be) routine tasks. Friends of the Company sessions give you a temperature reading of customers and let you know what those people are thinking and whether your message matches their experience with the product.
And matching that message to the product is an important task that’s very easy to practice during the F.O.C. Session. Remember, some of the people who are coming to see you are very talented and want to help, and some are just there to see what you’re up to in building your product and culture. All of this feedback can be really useful if you use it as a opportunity to refine your pitch, your usability, and the real-world functionality of your product.
If you talk to customers for any length of time, you’ve probably been asked, “what’s the best practice for that? And how can I get you to deliver best practices to me?” I often struggle with this question because o the definition of a “best practice” may vary depending upon who’s asking and the act of asking for a best practice – I think – is really something like “show me the process of getting to a best practice for the activity that I want to do.”
Wikipedia lists the definition for a best practice as:
A method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark. In addition, a “best” practice can evolve to become better as improvements are discovered. Best practice is considered by some as a business buzzword, used to describe the process of developing and following a standard way of doing things that multiple organizations can use. (source)
This is not a post for those who are seeking ISO 9001 certification – this is a discussion for the rest of us: how, exactly, do you get closer to a best practice, know when you’re close to getting there, document it, and improve upon it?
I propose a modest idea: that the process of getting to a “best practice” is actually something very close to the Agile idea of testing, acting, and measuring. Let’s name it in a less geeky way, like “evaluating”, “interacting”, and “enhancing” as the steps of a process to take an idea, determine what the success might look like when you finished it, actually walk through the procedure, and then evaluate whether you were anywhere near close to the mark.
These are actually small decisions (almost like Minimum Viable Decisions), and they might look like the following:
Evaluating – this is the step where you understand and quantify your business problem. An example might be: “How can we figure out how many widgets we sell in a month that are related to inbound visits to our web site,” or “we’d like to figure out how to get a new user in our software service to be proficient at adding a business rule more quickly.” The description looks a lot like an Agile product story, where you try to determine the actors who do things, the system that they use, and the results they qualitatively might like to see.
Interacting – this is the next step, where you think about the “happy path” of how a user who solved that problem might actually interact with your system to provide a solution. For some solutions, you might require a system configuration, e.g. putting a persistent invite code in a web page so that you can track unique sales that happen through your web site. Or it might be a softer interaction, like documenting the procedure for creating a business rule (and also generalizing the problem that you are trying to automate in your system by using business rules.
And finally, you need to enter the enhancing step, where you test whether your hypothesis made any sense and the resulting actions taken by the customer, the system (or perhaps some combination of the two of them acting together) produced something like the desired result. And more importantly, how often did this go right? How often did it go dreadfully wrong?
The best practice is the logical result of a process or procedure that allows you to enter this sequence of decisions and end with the desired business result. So if you actually get sales from your website the way you expected, or the customers you walked through this process were more successful in creating a business rule, then great! Now you need to test-run this “best practice” candidate with other customers who don’t have the benefit of you walking them through the whole process step by step. And you need to test it with at least 30-40 trials to rule out simple bias. When you get to the end of that process and your “best practice” still seems to work, congratulations! That’s one in a row.
Note that during your enhancing step, an important thing to consider is how the customer felt about the process. It’s not always easy to capture this emotion, and the customer often expresses it as “it felt too hard,” or “I don’t get it,” or “I don’t see why this would be useful to me.” (among a host of other responses you might get.) Boiling that response down to actionable concrete steps to improve the process is feedback gold. Ask for the one thing they would like to change (just one thing) and you’ll get closer to it.
Ray Ozzie appeared out of the Seattle mist today to share a very important lesson of startups and of business in general. He shared the story of how Lotus Notes started – and it sounded a lot like other stories I’ve heard about successful startups – at one moment they were hanging by a thread, and depended upon an idea and some money to bring their visions to life. They succeeded because of a relentless focus on customers, usability, and revenue.
All of the 10 companies introduced by the Techstars program have the chance to be as big (or bigger than) Lotus Notes. And only some of them will succeed. But the opportunity to build a big company is intoxicating – that was the promise today at TechStars Demo Day. Here’s one of the companies I particularly liked, Apptentive – they focus on a key problem to help in-app mobile customers build a relationship with the app provider. (I also really like Tred, Glider, and Linksy.)
And the first step (getting investors to believe in you) is going to be closely followed by the “trough of misplaced expectations”, where the shiny presentations of TechStars are going to be met by actual customers. Just like companies are looking for investors to believe in the team, these nascent companies are looking for customers that believe in them … And to use them. Continue reading →
Have you ever been to a trade show where you found a t-shirt, a cool robot, or other swag? Or maybe dropped your business card in a bowl for a chance at an iPad or something even better? And did you remember that company a few days later when you got home? I don’t usually remember those things – I just recycle them.
Customers (and potential customers) want solutions to the problems that they have (and perhaps solutions to new problems that they don’t know that they have yet.) If you spend your time focusing on giveaways, you’re going to miss the important part of your relationship with the customer that lasts beyond the trade show floor and lasts, hopefully, for years.
When they find you at a booth in a trade show, the customer likely has a few questions:
Who are you and what do you do? (message: how can you help me?)
How much does that cost? (message: is it in my budget and should we even be talking?)
Are you giving away shiny robots? (message: I have checked out of your pitch and am just looking to cut my losses and take stuff home)
These are all valid questions, and you can share valuable information. And if you focus on the need your customer has, the solution that you can provide that meets those needs, and explaining to the customer how to make these things meet. That’s more valuable than any giveaway, and will have a longer half-life in the customer’s mind.
It’s a sad day in a way – today marks the end of Gist, a company I had the pleasure of working for through its evolution from a scrappy startup pioneering new ways to manage social contacts through its acquisition by Research in Motion – the BlackBerry folks. And it’s a happy (albeit bittersweet) day as well. The end of Gist is a great time to reflect on the nature and purpose of startups – how fickle they are, how fragile, and how magical.
I love startups because they strip away the unnecessary parts of corporate america and focus on putting together a team to address a market and (hopefully) to solve a problem that people (and customers) want solved. Asking customers to hire your startup for the job they want solved – and hearing feedback from them that you solved that job well – is a great rush.
The purpose of a startup is – I think – very simple. The goal is to either build a grand, successful business, attract acquisition potential (and culminate in an acquisition), or to fail – as quickly as possible. That sounds a bit harsh when you put it that way but consider it as an efficient use of capital to make more capital. Along the way there are great relationships built, features created, and features (and products thrown away or pivoted because … sometimes … customers don’t think the way that you do.)
Working in a startup can be quite tiring (even if it’s also amazing.) It’s hard because the impetus to get things done is almost certainly self-driven. Customers will ask you to build features and functionality, and the team is the only driver to actually make that happen. There are always constraints, be they money, time, or people. And the reward for working in that startup is most often the reward of a challenge met, a job (sometimes well) done, and the knowledge that “hey, we did that.” is quite cool.
And surviving and thriving in a startup (or in a small, entreprenuerial business unit after that startup has been successfully acquired) is an ongoing process. There are some days when it’s hard to listen to customers ask you about a feature that’s not done yet; or when you’re not sure what to do next; or when you’d just like more sleep. And there are more days when you look at what’s possible to get done in a brief amount of time with small amounts of resources and the result is nothing short of amazing.