If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages
Think of all the things we could discuss
If we could walk with the animals, talk with the animals,
Grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals,
And they could squeak and squawk and speak and talk to us.
— Dr. Doolittle, If I Could Talk to the Animals
In a post today at Creating Passionate Users called Users aren’t dangerous, author Kathy Sierra opens with the statement that many firms treat their customers like they have some sort of contagious disease. They do their level best to avoid coming into any contact with them. She’s absolutely right.
I have recently begun to wonder if the reason for this is that on some level many companies are afraid of their customers and what they might say. The image that comes to mind is that customers are like the animals in the zoo — we like to visit them, show that we are interested in them, give lip service to understanding what they need, throw them a few peanuts, and then go home. To actually engage with them — no way, too scary. What if they bite us?
Hence, my citation of Dr. Doolittle, who, if any of you remember the original 1960s film, was pretty much ostracized from polite society for talking to the animals. For trying to understand what they wanted. For seeing another point of view.
It’s time we all started thinking a bit more like Dr. Doolittle and a bit less like the bad guys in the film (and I can’t even remember who they were, but I can still see Rex Harrison singing to a pink conch shell, do not ask me what that means about my psychosocial development). I digress.
The point is: Let’s start talking with our customers, not just talking AT them. Let’s make it easier for our customers to talk with each other.
I think of this as shifting from a model of absolute control to one of controlled, or managed, engagement. IOW I am not proposing that companies open up everything, just what is necessary to allow participation of customers at an appropriate level.
So why DON’T we do this already?
Many companies will swear up and down that their product development teams talk to customers all the time. Conversations, surveys, etc. etc. The reality? Many, if not most, of the communications are designed not to find out what the customers really think, but to validate a decision already made. Some of those decisions are of course right, but sometimes true customer input would dictate a different approach. By then, of course, it is too late. So one reason we are afraid of our customers is they might not agree with us. Ouch. Not a good sign for future health of a business.
Our other fear? We are afraid to let customers speak freely outside of the strictly controlled confines of public relations and prepared case studies. What if they don’t like something, or say something negative, or even just wishy-washy. Well, the bad news is, your customer will find an outlet for his criticism, so isn’t it better that you are the outlet? So you can DO something about it? And funnily enough, it has been my experience that when you invite a customer to the party, even if she is disgruntled about something, the simple act of soliciting the feedback goes part way to improving the situation. Soothing the savage beast, to go back to my animal analogy.
So, how do we get over this fear? As Dr. Doolittle says, I think we just have to talk to the animals. And not just our sales and marketing teams. Product managers, developers, quality assurance, executive management, operations, support, even finance. And we have to take the conversations out of the predictable patterns, to really understand the customer’s business problem or social desire, or whatever it is that prompted them to engage with us in the first place.
This is one of the reasons I am so excited about the potential of blogs for customer engagement. In my opinion, the blog format is more suited to scaleable and active company-customer engagement than any other tool we currently have at our disposal. Nothing can beat a face-to-face conversation or telephone conversation or meaningful one-to-one e-mail exchange. But these are not scaleable, nor do they reach out to many at once. Websites are both scaleable and have reach, but they are static, so it just ain’t a conversation. Blogs combine some of the best attributes of conversations and Websites, and that’s what makes them so suited to "talking to the animals."