Below is the fifth installment in our series, Leading by Listening. In this series we explore multiple facets of listening and its role in organizational leadership.

Customer listening is one of the key strategies for remaining competitive in today’s business environment. But the sheer volume of what’s being said can make listening in a meaningful and actionable way a challenge.

From Focus Groups to “Always On”
Beginning in the 1950s, companies became more intentional about carving out space for listening to their customers. Famously, this was the era when sales for the once wildly popular “just add water” cake mixes began to flatten. Ernest Dichter, a psychologist turned market researcher, interviewed a group of women and discovered that the simplicity of “just add water and stir” made women feel self-indulgent; there just wasn’t enough work involved. His solution: add a few eggs as well. Dry cake mix sales took off!

This story (and its many permutations) has become the stuff of marketing legend, and so the “focus group” has become common practice for advertising agencies and marketers alike. Indeed, for a long time it was the only show in town when it came to listening to customers.

Fast forward to today: the digital age of 24/7, omni-channel customer feedback. Social listening platforms (e.g., Brandworld, Synthesio) promise to help comb the internet, listening to and reporting on every customer conversation about your brand. Focus groups have largely gone virtual, taking the form of live video chat rooms and private online communities in which brands invite customers to virtual discussions.

At CSpace, where I spent close to a decade helping brands listen to their customers, my clients overwhelmingly agreed that the deluge of information is “like a faucet they cannot turn off.” As our appetite and ability for collecting knowledge about customers and their experiences has spiked, their expectation of being listened to has followed a similar trajectory.

The Curse of Knowledge
“Getting” the customer has become so important that Customer Experience teams often include ethnographers, quantitative analysts, and human centric designers. And these people do get the customer. In fact, they know the customer so well that they sometimes suffer from the “curse of knowledge”, being familiar with something on such a fine-grained level that it becomes more difficult to communicate that knowledge to others within their organizations.

Certain organizational structures can further compound the curse of knowledge. Often, the folks doing the listening sit at a much lower level in the organization than those making the business decisions. Add to this the fact that facilitating conversations about customer experience across multiple business functions is highly challenging, and you get a recipe for under-utilized information.

Connections Are the Secret to Insight and Creativity
Consider a few companies who have designed “engaging customer experiences” to drive growth, and who are thriving in the 21st century – Warby Parker and Dollar Shave Club, to name a few. Before becoming the market disruptors we know them as today, they were small start-ups. Because of their initial size, these companies could easily share information across and up and down their organization. Those with deep knowledge of the business were in close contact with those “getting” the customer experience (sometimes the same person wore both hats). Not surprisingly, this scenario facilitated connections between the needs of the business and the needs of the customer, resulting in powerful insights and recommendations that made sense when it came time to operationalize them. In the case of Warby Parker, they knew that consumers wanted the experience of buying eyeglasses to be easier and less expensive. But, of course, they also knew that customers would need to try on glasses before purchasing. By shipping customers multiple frames to try on before adding lenses, the company could realistically meet this need and still make money.

So what does this mean for large companies challenged by functional silos and hierarchical structures? In a sea of data, how do you figure out what to pay attention to? Here are three ways companies can go from listening to making meaningful changes driven by customer insight:

Have the Right Conversation
Design the right conversation to have after you’ve listened to your customer’s experiences. Involving a third party in designing and facilitating such conversations can help ensure that those closest to both the data and the business can see the subject with fresh eyes. You want to be open not just to data suggesting incremental changes, but to examining information that suggests a radical shift in approach. Ask questions that define the problem better, or think about it in a new way, such as, “What’s working? What’s not? Why? Does this experience ‘delight’ customers?” Don’t shy away from questions that provoke, surprise you, or make you feel uncomfortable. In our Design Sessions, we often introduce metaphors as a way of helping people look at the problem from different angles and discuss controversial questions in less charged terms.

Make It A Cross-Functional Effort
Just as you need to have the right conversation about the data, you need to involve the right people in gathering and interpreting customer experience input. First, make sure that the various people listening to the customer experience are in dialogue with one another and building a collective narrative that may connect seemingly disparate data points. Second, ensure that you elevate the function of customer experience and give them a seat at the table in day-to-day strategic business conversations. Third, be sure that business units and operations are in conversation about what to do as a system in order to address the root of chronic or complex problems. This can take the form of quarterly workshops or Design Sessions. The important part is getting a cross functional team to help identify and solve ways to improve the customer experience holistically.

Experience the Customer Experience
A.G. Lafley, former CEO and current chairman of P&G (and well known innovator) is known for encouraging his staff to get out of their offices and into the world. He believes in the value of observing consumer behavior first hand rather than just reading someone else’s analysis of what your customers want. There’s much we can learn from this approach and there are ways to accelerate the process. Try using a workshop setting to bring together cross-functional individuals and immerse them in the customer experience rather than presenting it to them. Have them collectively build (or build upon) the customer journey together using customer experience data and stories as inputs. Decision-makers will be able to feel the customer’s pain points on a personal level and build a collective understanding of the current reality and why it needs to change.

Truly listening to our customers in a digital age can be powerful if we know how to overcome the curse of knowledge and to facilitate connections across our organizations. We need to make sure that we don’t lose the forest for the trees. Don’t let the very real and personal nature of the customer journey get drowned out by data points. We also need to make sure that we apply wisdom from across our organizations as we gather and interpret the customer experience data so as to arrive at the deepest business insights and most realistic operational strategies.


For more on this topic, check out From Insight to Impact (below), in which Communispace VP of Research, Manila Austin, Ph.D. explores questions surrounding how to create business impact out of consumer insights. She shares findings compiled from in-depth interviews with Fortune 500 companies. The presentation focuses on issues ranging from the barriers faced by consumer insight professionals and strategies for synthesizing information to the new, must-have consumer insight skills and real-world examples of how leading brands are delivering results.