Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sales Tools, Customer Segmentation, and the Importance of Staying on Message

Just the other day I was driving a visiting international colleague around and, while loading some items into the trunk of my car, I happened to set my keys in the trunk of the car. What happened next was one of those 'doh' moments that's an ever-present danger with an electronic control for the trunk lock -- I closed the trunk and locked the car keys in the car. And with the car doors locked, there was no way to get into the car.

While this might require a Triple A call, I was only about 10 minutes from home and my girlfriend was close. All I needed was for her to stop by my apartment and bring me my spare key. So I called my roommate back at the apartment and told him to where to find my spare key. My spare key was sitting on a counter in the kitchen that has several appliances including the rice cooker, the coffee maker, the toaster oven and some of that miscellaneous stuff that tends to take over countertop surfaces. Even in a select area like this, it may seem like the key is lost, but I have a really strong sense of spacial awareness, so I knew that I could direct my roommate to the exact spot where the key was located.

So, picture this -- I'm sitting on my cell phone, talking my roommate through the location of the key. He's looking in the right area, but he can't seem to see the key (I know it should be easily visible from his location -- he's just looking at the wrong area of the counter). He's looking close to the rice cooker, and I'm trying to direct him to an area close to the answering machine, about 18 inches back and to the left. And, for whatever reason, he starts reading me words from the face of the rice cooker, "Neuro Fuzzy NS-ZCC10, Made in Japan".

So here I am, sitting there, wrestling with a problem that has me a bit frustrated, and his idea to help me with the process is to give me information that I don't need and that doesn't really add to the solution. What am I supposed to learn from this - that he can read? Beyond the search-location of the rice cooker which we had already gone over, this simple communication was not on topic.

Out of Context Communication in the Abstract
If we abstract this situation slightly, what we have is an exchange of dialog where one party uses the vocabulary related to the problem, but without an understanding of their relationship to the issue at hand. If this had been a customer service situation, or a salesperson moving through the steps of solution selling, this little exchange could be distilled down into using related words with no understanding of the problem -- like reading a script with no sense of reaction from the audience. When you're supposed to be having a dialog, the take-away message for the audience is that you're an idiot with no idea what they are talking about. And, they get frustrated and angry, because you're not helping them -- you just burned "your permission asset".

This tension sits at the heart of most call-in customer support lines. It's also that particularly painful frustration that you feel if you're an experienced user that's forced into a service pipeline that typically handles novice users -- you try to explain to the tech what's wrong and they still force you through a structured script that doesn't match your problem. "Have you tried reinstalling windows yet?" For this problem, some of the best people phone people that I've dealt with will say things like, "I understand this doesn't address your issue, but the system requires that I go through these steps before it will let me escalate the case." At that point, the tech communicates to me that we are both victims of a dumb system, and that he's sympathetic.

But if there's one thing worse than a customer service process that follows a script without respect to the audience, it's when sales decides to do their dance without listening. At one time or another, we've all been customers that had to deal with a sales person that wasn't listening. Whether we actually buy tends to be shaped by how bad we need the product and how offensive their behavior is, but it definitely our experience either way. While one root cause is sales imposing their agenda on a customer (down from above). Part of this behavior originates from the psyche of some sales people and a perception that if they aren't talking, giving you brochures, and going through the motions of their dance, then they aren't selling... or people will think that they aren't selling.

Wrapping Up
I would love to get comments on how you address these kinds of issues. Lately, the path that I've been following is to walk people through examples of customer profiles and use cases. As they start to follow the path of who the customer is and how they got to the point where they are, communication issues become a lot clearer. In that way, I hope my hassles with key location customer service provides a good, simple story to help explain some customer frustration.

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