By now, most organizations realize that to satisfy today’s demanding customers they have to do more than just pushing generic products and benefits to the market. A go-to solution is “customer service.” This usually translates to more of the same: using mechanical tools, such as scripted responses and quantitative performance measures, to address human-based gaps in value and relationships. Without empathy, interest and ability to understand customers outside the narrow scope of their transactions with your association and your function or department, customer service is the equivalent of piped in, elevator music: a programmed response and a background “filler” rather than a value-generating relationship. To shift from one to the other you have to change your conversation with your customers.
The mantra among customer service advocates is to “listen to your customers.” While this is of course is pre-requisite to deeper levels of customer knowledge, it is inadequate as a goal unto itself. Passive listening without understanding does not make a substantial difference to your ability to help customers solve the problems that are uppermost in their minds and, as a result, provide indispensable value to them.
Getting to know customers is no different than understanding other human beings. It takes changing your conversation and building relationships over time rather than taking snapshots of their responses to your programs at one moment in time. It is akin to peeling the layers of an onion to get to the center of what creates meaning and value for another human being. This is the center you want to connect with to become indispensable.
To gauge how deep your understanding of members is and what gaps you must fill, we constructed a diagram that lays out the layers of factors and experiences that define a member as a whole person in concentric circles–with #1 representing the outer circle. You may have to adapt it to reflect you own customer profile but the important question to ask is how many of these layers represent your current understanding of, and relationship with, your customers.
The Four Levels of Knowledge
Information: It includes quantitative data such as demographics or salary surveys and information derived from passive research instruments such as program evaluations and other types of questionnaires. It is not “wrong” to have quantitative information. It is a piece of what needs to be known to understand one’s market. The problem arises when organizations consider this level of knowledge as adequate for serving, designing programs and services and competing for their customers.
A common assumption is that to understand customer needs, you ask them direct questions and take their answers at face value.
How useful are members’ answers to questions about which of your programs they like and what new programs they request? Would these answers tell you, for example, whether, while loving your programs or benefits, these members don’t consider them critical to their success and would drop their membership in a heartbeat at crunch times or when they locate more targeted services for their needs?
2. Understanding the larger context: the larger economic landscape; the new dynamics and players that shape the way value is created, shared and converted into economic benefit; and the emerging opportunities and sources of value.
Understanding the customer where h/she lives: the customer’s daily experience of issues and problems– how products or information are used and they might be used to be made more useful; how challenges are perceived and experienced; members’ struggles to get and retain their own customers; factors and relationships that impact outcomes, etc. It is insights into such nuances that will often uncover a new opportunity for a new product or basis for competitive advantage. For Zappos it was the realization that the speed of delivery and superior customer service were more valued than the variety and quality of products that allowed the company shift the base of its value proposition from quality to customer experience and build the largest online shoe retail industry in the world.
Immersion in your customer’s world being able to walk in your customers’ shoes and think and see the world through their eyes. On this level the provider organization is not a passive learner but a co-creator. At the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), for example, staff and members practically “live” on their online platform, on which they can access a variety of benefits and resources. Staff may ask or answer questions; research an answer; get feedback on a new idea; co-develop a tool or prototype. At the same time, staff devotes time each and every day discussing member responses, questions or critical comments; analyzing the implications; anticipating future needs and developing solutions.
Changing the conversation rather than only your products
Take a look at most association websites, annual reports and communications with members. The most common theme is the associations themselves: reiterations of mission, numbers of members served, accomplishments and the like.
The assumption is that the association itself—products, history, reputation, achievements etc. – is the primary source of value for customers. No wonder that for many associations, increasing intimacy with members means becoming, what they term, “transparent”—e.g. allowing members behind-the-scenes glimpses into how the association works, even access to minutes from board meetings. How many of us would flock to a provider that allowed us to read minutes from their meetings, when our professional struggles or state of unemployment were uppermost in our minds? How do the inner workings of an organization or its lists of achievements solve our pressing problems? What is sorely missing from most associations’ communications with members is the voice of the customer.
Instead of new techniques or marketing hype, start by reviewing your most basic conversations with your customers and recasting them from their perspective, for example:
Customers are “real” in informal, human-based interactions with peers and others rather than in formal settings. Are you tuned into their conversations with each other in online communities or in-between sessions at a conference? Do you have “real” conversations in one-on-one interviews, over a cup of coffee or in a brainstorming session? Do you participate in the world they inhabit–taking part in online conversations, reading the books or journals they read, adopting the platforms on which they communicate and connect?
Given the pressures of time constraints and challenges they have to address, we prioritize. We are far more likely to linger on a website on which we can do something useful and address a need—shopping, meeting people, solving a problem, learning something useful—than on one where you find out how wonderful the provider is. Will your members and customers who visit your website see that others share the same challenges and be able to ask them questions? Will they find a tool, idea or resource they can apply to solve a problem? Will they be able to leverage the membership community to ask questions, identify a partner or client, collaborate, do business, locate a solution or provide an answer that helps someone else?
Being “understood” does not mean much if it is not acted upon. Does your organization convert understanding into action? Does it have the flexibility and commitment to put people above products and constantly reconfigure and adapt everything in the organization to be able to provide value to customers?
It is by seeing the world through the customer’s eyes rather than producing products or promises that you can shift your conversation with customers and, thus, your value to them.