JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Everyone tells you that you should listen to your customers. I know I have probably said that from time to time. But it’s the wrong advice. You need to be aware of the distinction between understanding your customers and listening to them. Of course, before you can either understand or listen, you have to get to know your customers. Getting to know customers has always been a sticking point for information developers. More often than not I hear: “They won’t let us.” But that sticking point is sorely out of date, especially when we face customer requirements for information delivery in a myriad of new forms.

Steve Jobs, of course, had the quintessential view of learning from but not listening to Apple’s customers. He said: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” Jobs focused not on asking customers what they wanted but on knowing what they needed and what would help them fulfill real but often unstated goals.

I think the best summation for information developers of his contention is this quote:

“Your customers don’t care about you. They don’t care about your product or service. They care about themselves, their dreams, their goals. Now, they will care much more if you help them reach their goals, and to do that, you must understand their goals, as well as their needs and deepest desires.”

From a completely different perspective, the culinary world has heard the same message from Ferran Adrià, the owner and chef of the famous El Bulli in Spain, regarded as one of the best restaurants in the world. Adrià is well known for innovations in the field of “molecular gastronomy.”

His idea is that if you “listen to customers, what they tell you they want will be based on something they already know.” In some many cases, I hear from information-development managers that, when they ask their customers what sort of information they prefer, their reply is “more PDFs.” Of course, that’s exactly Adrià’s point—they tell you what they know.

Connecting with Customers

Before you can start “not listening” to your customers, you actually need to get to connect with them in a meaningful way. The best way of connecting with them is through a conversation. A conversation is not a focus group or a survey but an actual exchange with a customer as an individual, not as part of a group.

To start a conversation, you may consider these activities:

  • Identify individual customers who represent a variety of perspectives on your product and your information. That might mean finding experienced customers who work for major companies or inexperienced customers who work alone or any combination of backgrounds, interests, and skills that are in between.
  • Make initial contacts through sales, marketing, support, training, or any other organization that has consistent contact with customers.
  • Start with telephone conversations. Ask customers if they are willing to talk to you about how they have learned to use your company’s products or services. Don’t even mention the documentation or the help. Just get customers talking about their learning experiences. Move from learning experiences to their goals. Why are they using your products? Have they used other similar products? What do they like about using your products? Do they get answers to their questions quickly? Were they able to come up to speed, achieve their goals, quickly and easily? What stood in their way?
  • Move on to site visits. One of the very best ways to communicate with your customers is face-to-face. A phone conversation is useful but generally doesn’t give the same information about culture that customer visits provides you. Find ways to set up visits—starting with customers in driving distance if possible. Combine a customer visit with attendance at an industry workshop or conference. Suggesting a customer visit might be a good way to get funding for your attendance at an event. Even consider combining a customer visit with a personal vacation, showing real dedication to learning.
  • Overcome objections. Point to the quotes from Steve Jobs to illustrate how important it is for you to understand your customers and their information needs. Point out that other organizations report that customers value technical information, in one case as much as 10-15% of the cost of the product. Use surveys to gather customer preferences, even if suspect. Learning that your customers might prefer video to text could get you permission to get out of the office. Explain that what customers tell you directly is interesting but inconclusive. You need to learn what they do, not what they say.
  • Set up a customer partnering engagement. See my article on customer partnering for the details. A customer partnering is a longer conversation with one or more customers. The partnering is one of the few activities that I suggest having more than one customer contributing. A partnering can be set up with one or three or four customers together. The advantage over focus groups is that the customers get to know one another and are more likely to contribute their ideas to the conversation than in one-time events.
  • Create a customer council. A customer council is a more permanent form of customer partnering. It should include a small number but a significant variety of perspectives. You don’t want only new or old customers or big or small customers on a council. You want some of each so that you get many points of view.

With each of these activities, remember to never ask a customer how you should write the content or distribute it. Your goal is to learn and understand so that you, as the expert, can make the best decisions for future information development. Your customers are not experts in information design, but you should be. Your customers are experts in their needs and their goals. They can provide you with invaluable information about what will help them become more productive and more satisfied with the products you support.

So—stop listening to your customers. They can only tell you what they already know (like more PDFs). Find out what you can provide them that will make a difference.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.