A few weeks ago, I published a piece in Forbes with tips on how to learn from your toughest customers.
During most of the year, these “customers” tend to the people buying our products or using our services — people who don’t understand why our products or services cost so much, are so difficult to understand, or why they should choose them over other options.
During the holidays, though, these people tend to be our family members — people who don’t understand why we moved so far from home, don’t call or visit more often, or why we support a certain political party, politician, or cause.
Luckily, the same techniques we use to understand our business’ customers and craft solutions that help them solve their problems or achieve the progress they seek (their Jobs to be Done, according to Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen), can also be used to keep the peace at your next family gathering.
Here are some Customer Research Do’s and Don’ts to help you navigate your next visit with family:
1. DO establish the topic of conversation. DON’T lead with your opinion: When you start an in-depth qualitative interview with a customer, you don’t start the conversation with “I think what we do is awesome and that you’re a horrible person if you don’t agree with me.” You start with, “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I’m very excited to hear your opinions about my business.”
We all know you’re not excited to hear Uncle Lenny’s opinion on gun control but starting the conversation with your opinion isn’t going to help things. So, when Uncle Lenny brings up the topic, simply acknowledge the topic and ask if others are interested in having the conversation. Who knows, maybe Aunt Jenny will shut the conversation down before it gets started.
2. DO listen more than you talk. DON’T try to win the argument. The purpose of customer interviews is to learn from your customer, not to convince them to do something. That’s why you try to talk only 20% of the time and listen 80%.
When Uncle Lenny, undeterred by Aunt Jenny’s pleas to move on, continues to expound on why he believes what he believes about gun control, don’t try to drown him out, overwhelm him with data, or win him over to your side. Instead, listen to what he has to say, ask open-ended questions, and, every so often, chime in with your point of view.
3. DO be curious. DON’T make assumptions. During customer interviews, you don’t take things at face value. When a customer says something is easy, you ask what makes it easy. When as customer says they want something to be more convenient, you ask what “more convenient” would look like. You don’t assume you know what the customer means, you ask.
When Grandpa Joe says that anyone who believes (fill in the topic) is a (fill in the negative stereotype), don’t assume that he’s talking about you. Ask why he thinks that people who believe X are Y. Maybe he’s never met anyone who believes X and is simply repeating something he heard. As a result, he may be surprised that the family member he loves who doesn’t fit the stereotype does believe X. Maybe he HAS met someone who believes X and they do fit the stereotype. Then you can remind him that 1 person doesn’t represent everyone in a group and that while yes, that person may not be his cup of tea, there are other people (like you) who are.
4. DO share your opinions. DON’T be dogmatic about it. In the rare instance when a customer starts to assert patently false things — a company has satanic roots, a product kills pets, an executive committed a crime — it’s your responsibility to speak-up and correct the falsehood. When you correct a customer, you don’t stand up and shout in their face, you speak slowly and calmly, gently acknowledging their opinion before sharing the facts, and you do this only a few times before moving on to the next topic.
When Grandpa Joe refuses to relent on his “anyone who believes X is a Y” stance, you have every right to disagree but doing it with the same absolute language and heated emotions isn’t going to change his mind. Instead, consider framing your opinion as a question, “Grandpa, what if I believe X. What would you think then?” If he persists, then gently explain that you hear him, respectfully disagree with him, and believe X for the following reasons.
5. DO know your limits. DON’T be afraid to leave when they’ve been reached. Customer interviews have a time limit and, no matter how chatty, interesting, or charming your customer is, you end the conversation when the time limit has been reached. Maybe you schedule time for a follow-up conversation but more often than not, you thank them for their time, hand them their check, and show them out the door.
Family time also has a limit. When you reach the limit of your patience, energy, civility, or sanity, thank everyone for their time and show yourself out the door. Yes, you may miss out on Grandma’s pie or your sibling’s vacation photos, but that’s a small price to pay for keeping the peace. And you can always schedule time late for conversations with select family members.
Talking to customers isn’t easy. Neither is talking to your family. But by using the same techniques you use to understand and empathize with your customers, you can navigate the minefields of family gatherings, maintain your sanity, and maybe even make it to dessert.