I love engineers*
Engineers are the ultimate problem-solvers. They see a problem and the need to fix it. Engineers believe every solution can be improved, every process can be more efficient, and every system optimized.
Which is why I nearly fell out of my chair when, after explaining (again) the importance of asking 5 Whys when interviewing customers and asking why the team was struggling to do so, an engineer said,
“We troubleshoot the why. Asking would be a show of not knowing.”
In my head, I screamed, “But we don’t know! We don’t know the problem because the customer defines the problem! But people are terrible at defining problems, so we ask why. So that we can understand the root cause, then articulate the problem, then solve it!”
Instead of actually screaming, I took a deep breath and said, “Mmmmmm, interesting.”
Admittedly, not the most helpful response.
Why Asking “Why?” is hard
How often do you ask, “Why?”
How often do people on your team ask, “Why?”
Probably not often and probably for reasons that feel very sensible:
- It’s my job to know why
- I don’t want people to think I don’t know
- I don’t know, but I think I should
- People will think I’m stupid/not good at my job
- I’ll lose credibility, and that will impact my job/job prospects/paycheck
And, let’s be honest, those reasons are quite sensible depending on the circumstance.
But feelings aren’t facts, and I still didn’t understand why problem-solvers struggled to ask, “Why?”
So, I sought out an engineer and asked, “Why?”
He took a deep breath and said, “Mmmmmm, it’s complicated.”
When asking “Why?” should be hard.
There are lots of different types of engineers, but when you focus on engineers working in companies (as opposed to those in academia or research labs), most of them work on machines, code, systems, or processes, that exists or are knowable.
In this context, when there’s a problem, it’s the engineer’s job to identify why the problem occurred and how to fix it.
To troubleshoot the Why, engineers use tools specifically designed to collect and analyze data. While those tools aren’t perfect, engineers know how to calibrate the data by applying different allowances and tool combinations.
“So,” I summarized, “when you’re dealing with something objectively knowable, like a machine or code, and you have a proven tool for troubleshooting, you shouldn’t ask, ‘Why?’ Right?”
“Sure,” replied the engineer, who is very used to me over-simplifying things and knows better than to try to convince me that his long and complicated answer is a better way to go.
When asking “Why?” should be easy
Humans can also be thought of as machines, code, systems, and processes, but, unlike those that engineers work on, we’re not objectively knowable. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote, “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.”
In this context, when a human has a problem, the human is the only one who knows why the problem occurred. This means that we must find the Why before we can troubleshoot it.
Finding the Why and troubleshooting in this circumstance is challenging because we don’t have tools specifically designed to collect and analyze data. We ARE the tools. We must ask the right questions and listen without assuming or interpreting to ensure that we get accurate answers.
How to make asking “Why?” easier
As a problem-solver, it’s always essential that you find the root cause.
How you find that root cause varies.
If the problem is occurring in something that is objectively knowable and accurately measured and assessed with proven tools, then yes, it IS your job to know why there’s a problem and troubleshoot it.
If the problem is occurring in something not objectively knowable (like a human), then it is your job to ask Why (usually several times) before you troubleshoot.
After all, even if you’re an engineer, you can’t solve a problem if you don’t know why it exists.
* I’m married to an engineer, but that’s not the only reason I love them
“He’s just not that into you.”
That sentence is usually uttered as tough-love advice to a friend who can’t seem to let go of a guy that’s clearly let go of her. A few weeks ago, it was tough love advice to one of my friends who couldn’t understand why customers weren’t swooning over his company’s newest product.
They didn’t hate.
But most didn’t like it enough to buy it.
It wasn’t rejection that was killing the business. It was apathy.
It was painful to witness.
It is also solvable.
I’m a baseball fan. I’m also the first to admit that baseball breeds apathy amongst its fans.
4-hour games. At-bats that feel like 4 hours. Fan involvement that is limited mainly to the Wave and the 7th Inning Stretch. It’s boring.
Unless you’re in Savannah, GA.
If you’re in Savannah to see baseball, you show up 2 hours before the game starts. When the gates open, you rush to your seats because you don’t want to miss a moment of the pre-game festivities. During the game, you bounce in and out of your seat so much that it counts as a workout. After the game, you spend another hour dancing and singing with the band and the team. By the time you get home, your voice is hoarse, your head is spinning, and you swear you never knew a baseball game could be so fun.
It’s bananas. The Savannah Bananas.
Converting the apathetic into raving fans
How do they do it?
How does a collegiate summer baseball team sell out every game since 2016 and routinely attract people from around the world?
More importantly, what can you (and my friend) learn from them?
1. Do Your (customers’) Job (to be Done).
Most people go to baseball games to have fun and make memories. Most MLB franchises are focused on making a profit and winning trophies. Not a whole lot of overlap there.
The Bananas promise “to provide an electric atmosphere at all of our games! Our fans come first, and we’re dedicated to entertaining you!” There’s a complete overlap between what the fans want – have fun and make memories – and what the Bananas offer.
2. Deliver an end-to-end experience
For most businesses, designing and delivering an end-to-end experience is about investing in technology to make buying their products “frictionless” and training customer service to be more “helpful.”
The Bananas invest in delivering delight. Here’s what happened after I spent a whopping $50 to buy two tickets:
- I received an email telling me I had just made the “best decision of my life” and sharing a video of the “live” view of their offices when my order came in (dancing and chaos)
- Three days later, Carson called to thank me for buying tickets
- Two weeks before the game, they emailed to help me “mentally prepare” for the experience.
- One week before the game, they sent a permission slip to give to my boss to get out of work early.
- On gameday, they emailed a Spotify playlist so we could prepare for the game
- The day after, they emailed a handwritten thank you note from the owners
- A week after the game, they emailed a video montage of the game we attended
3. Be human
Most companies “run lean” and use technology to improve efficiencies because humans are expensive.
The Bananas are human. Carson emailed the permission slip. She also called to thank me for buying tickets. Nick sent the gameday email. He also gave me the wristband required to get to our seats. The owner, Jesse Cole, spent the night running around in a yellow tuxedo hyping up the crowd. His wife wrote a thank you letter.
4. Give thanks. No strings attached
We’ve all received the “Thank You for Your Purchase” email after an online transaction. We also know that the email will ask for something more – track your package, write a review, post on social media, buy another product.
The Bananas say, “Thank You,” then give you something more – a funny video, a permission slip, a Spotify playlist, a handwritten thank you note. They don’t ask you to buy merchandise or post about your experience on social media, or leave them a review.
If you don’t care about your product, no one else will.
In a world of baseballs, be a banana.
There are dozens of other things the Savannah Bananas do that make them unique and delightful that your business (and MLB) would struggle to copy.
But there are at least five things you can copy to stave off customer apathy and inspire die-hard, life-long, “tell all your friends” loyalty.
What did I miss? What have YOU experienced or done to be a banana?
Before we go any further, I need to be clear that I absolutely, totally, and completely believe in Jobs to be Done. In fact, more than once, I have uttered the words, “Jobs to be Done is a hill I will die on.”
Which means that I died a little inside when a client recently said to me,
“Jobs to be Done is amazing. ‘Jobs to be Done’ sucks.”
He’s right (as much as it kills me to admit that).
In an academic setting, the term makes perfect sense.
I understand where the term comes from and applaud the logic and clarity of the analogy at its core. Just as a company hires a person for a task or set of functions (a job), a person “hires” a product or service because they have a problem to solve or progress they need to make. They have a Job to be Done.
Managers and executives who work with me to learn Jobs to be Done and how to apply it quickly grasp the concept. After just one-hour, they can re-tell and explain the Milkshake story, identify functional/emotional/social jobs in role plays, and swear that the approach completely changes how they see and think about their business.
In the real world, the term is profoundly confusing.
Then the managers and executives, believing so strongly in its ability to transform the business, decide to roll it out to the organization. They talk about it, send articles about it, and train everyone to apply it in customer interviews. With great excitement, everyone from employees to senior leaders fan out to talk to customers, take copious notes, discuss insights with their teams, and happily declare that their customers’ Jobs to be Done are to buy the company’s products.
Here’s a quick (and entirely fictional) example:
- Chocolate Chip Cookie Company (CCCC): Hello, Ms. Customer. We want to learn more about your snacking habits. When you snack and why, what you like to snack on and why, stuff like that.
- Customer: Great! I love to snack on chocolate chip cookies, but the store-bought ones are expensive, and they’re filled with preservatives, and I’m trying to be healthier. I’d make my own, but I don’t have time.
CCCC returns to the office and declares that the customer’s Job to be Done is to buy cheap all-natural cookies from a store.
Ummm, no. Not even close.
The customer’s Jobs to be Done are to be healthy, manage her money, save time, and feel good about what she eats. CCCC’s job (literally, the company’s reason for business) is to make cookies that customers want to buy.
What CCCC identified as a customer Job to be Done is the company’s job (business). In other words, it’s a solution.
Why the confusion?
In the real world, people already have precise definitions of “job” in their heads. They have a job (role). They have a job to do (responsibilities, deliverables). Their colleagues have jobs (roles and responsibilities). They have job openings (hiring needs).
By assigning a new meaning to the word “job,” we’re not only asking people to change how they think and talk, but we’re also asking them to adopt an entirely new understanding of and use for a common word.
Imagine being told that “orange” means both a color and a cooking technique. It makes the brain hurt.
What’s the solution?
I don’t know. But here’s what I’ve tried.
- Pro: It’s part of the definition of a Job to be Done, and we all know what a problem is
- Con: It focuses customer conversations on existing pain points and sets a negative tone in interviews, making it challenging to discover solutions that delight the customer and, as a result, could inform how the problem is solved.
- Pro: It’s the OG of consumer research, a term we all know and use
- Con: It anchors customer conversations in functional Jobs to be Done and makes it difficult to surface the emotional and social Jobs that drive decisions and behavior.
- Customer Job to be Done
- Pro: Uses the original term while being VERY clear that the focus is on the customer
- Con: It’s a lot to say and even more to type, and people still fall back into their traditional definitions and use of the term job
What have you tried? What are your suggestions?
“When you say, ‘uh-huh’ over and over like that, I can tell you’re not listening to me.”
Me, age 7, to my mom
It doesn’t take a lot of experience to know when someone isn’t listening. From a young age, we can tell when someone is listening and when they’re simply responding.
When we’re with the person, we notice the lack of eye contact or the blankness in their eyes showing us where their thoughts are actually at. When we’re on the phone, we hear the repetitive and monotone mumbles that tell us they’re attention is elsewhere.
Yet often, what we want most is simply to be listened to.
This is true in our personal relationships and in our relationships with the businesses and organizations we support. We want people and businesses to listen to our opinions, to understand them, and to thoughtfully respond to them.
Instead, people and businesses simply “hear” us.
There’s a big difference between listening and hearing
According to the Oxford University Press, hearing is “the faculty of perceiving sounds” while listening is “give one’s attention to a sound” and “take notice of and act on what someone says.”
As I explain to my clients, surveys, focus groups, and even in-depth qualitative research is often a Hearing exercise – the company develops a list of questions, asks their customers to answer the questions, then tabulates the answers and passes them along to whoever needs them.
This is a transaction. An exchange of information. It is not listening.
Listening requires engagement. It happens during EPIC conversations, those typified by empathy, perspective, insights, and connection.
Listening accelerates innovation and drives transformation. When we’re listening, we’re learning new information and discovering new insights, which enables companies to create and act differently, differentiating themselves from the competition and ultimately gaining an advantage.
Listening takes practice but here are 5 simple steps to help you get started:
- Drop the agenda – Before you have a conversation within someone, identify the 1-3 things you need to learn and leave space for at least 1 surprise. If you go into a conversation with an agenda or a long list of questions, you’re only going to hear what you want to hear because your mind is primed to seek confirmation for your opinions and to reject anything counter to what you’re hoping to hear.
- Follow where they lead – During the conversation, don’t worry about trying to steer the conversation or “keep things on track.” If you only need to learn 3 things in the conversation and you have 30 minutes or an hour, you have plenty of time for tangents, stories, and random connections. This is where the surprises and the insights come from.
- Ask Why – Channel your inner two-year-old (or Toyota Production employee) and ask “Why” multiple times. When you ask “Why” you get personal, surprising answers that point to the motivations behind people’s choices and actions. When you ask “What” you get rational, expected, even obvious answers that you, and your competitors, have heard before.
- Say as little as possible – Follow the 80/20 rule and spend 80% of your time listening. When you ask a question, don’t go into a long pre-amble about why you’re asking it or follow it with a long list of options or examples. Simply ask the question and the answer will come.
- Let the silence work for you – After you ask a question, start counting silently in your head. Before you get to 8, the person you’re listening to will start talking. Silence makes people uncomfortable but it’s also when the brain goes into exploration and discovery mode. And the longer the silence goes on, the faster the brain works to come up with something to fill it. So, stay quiet and let the brain work!
Whether you’re talking to a customer, a colleague, or a friend, you’re talking to someone who wants you to listen, to hear and understand what they are saying. These 5 tips will help you do that and, if done well, discover something wonderful and unexpected with the power to transform.
Originally published on April 20, 2020 on Forbes.com
If you’re innovating without involving your customers, you’re wasting time and money.
I believe this so deeply that I require all of my clients to spend time talking with and listening to their customers at least once during our work together. Investing in customer research, I explain, is the single smartest and best investment that any business can make. Just 5 or 10 customer conversations can dramatically alter the course of an initiative, positioning it for incredible success or killing it before too much time, energy, and money is wasted.
Understanding your customers, especially through Jobs to be Done, is the hill I will die on.
But I actively resist doing this for my business.
The idea of interviewing my customers, or investing to understand their Jobs to be Done, or altering aspects of my business based on their feedback triggers a cold sweat and a very real flight response.
So why is my business different? (It’s not)
Why am I such a customer research hypocrite?
Here are the thoughts that run through my head when I consider talking to my own customers:
- I’m supposed to be the expert in this, what if they tell me something I haven’t thought of?
- What if my customers say they don’t like or want what I’m doing and would like or want something I’m not?
- What if I do try something new and it fails?
It is SO much easier, and it feels so much safer, to keep doing what I’m doing because it’s what I’ve always done and it’s what bigger and more “successful” firms do.
I suspect that I’m not the only one with these thoughts.
Over the years, I’ve spoken with lots of corporate innovators who proposed customer research only to be told, “We already know what we need to know” or “we did research a few years ago, let’s just use that,” or “sure, but we don’t have the resources right now so check back next quarter.”
These reasons make sense. On the surface.
We all know that getting feedback is key to keeping customers and it’s cheaper to keep a customer than acquire a new one. We’ve heard AG Lafley, P&G’s former CEO, proclaim “the consumer is boss.” We understand that when Steve Jobs said he didn’t do customer research it was because he and his inner circle were the customers they designed for and the rest of us would catch-up.
So we come up with reasons why something else (waiting, referring to old data) is a better option. We decide with our hearts (emotions) and justify with our heads. We give logical reasons – we already know this, we’ve already done this, we can’t do this now – so that we don’t have to confess the emotional reasons – fear, discomfort, insecurity – for refusing to do something that seems like common (business) sense.
How do we overcome these emotional barriers?
How do we overcome the fear and take action?
Here’s what I’m doing:
- Remember “Will the Real You Please Stand Up?” the great poem my dad gave me – “If you move with the crowd, you’ll get no further than the crowd. When 40 million people believe in a dumb idea, it’s still a dumb idea. Simply swimming with the tide leaves you nowhere.”
- Find my big-girl pants. Put them on.
- Take a deep breath
- Write down what I want to learn, especially if it scares me
- Find someone to help me do the research or, better yet, do it for me so I can avoid the emotion and engage in the insights
- Do the research
- Listen to and be curious about the results (if I’m defensive, I will not benefit)
- Create an action plan and get moving
Honestly, I’m on step 4 and really not looking forward to 5, 6, and 7 but I know that, when this is all done, my business and I will be better off.
At the very least, I will no longer be a hypocrite.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve kicked off innovation projects with multiple clients. As usual, my clients are deeply engaged and enthusiastic, eager to learn how to finally break through the barriers their organizations erect and turn their ideas into real initiatives that generate real results.
Things were progressing smoothly during the first kick-off until a client asked, “Who’s my customer?”
I was shocked. Dumbfounded. Speechless. To me, someone who “grew up” in P&G’s famed brand management function and who has made career out of customer-driven innovation, this was the equivalent of asking, “why should I wear clothes?” The answer is so obvious that the question shouldn’t need to be asked.
Taking a deep breath, I answered the question and we moved on.
A few days later, the question was asked again. By a different client. In a different company. A few days later, it was asked a third time. By yet a different client. In yet a different company. In a completely different industry!
What was going on?!?!?
Each time I gave an answer specific to the problem we were working to solve. When pressed, I tried to give a general definition for “customer” but found that I spent more time talking about exceptions and additions to the definition rather than giving a concise, concrete, and usable answer.
That’s when it struck me – Being “customer-driven” isn’t enough. To be successful, especially in innovation, you need to focus on serving everyone involved in your solution. You need to be “stakeholder-driven.”
What is a customer?
According to Merriam-Webster, a customer is “one that purchases a commodity or service.”
Makes perfect sense. At P&G, we referred to retailers like WalMart and Kroger as “customers” because they purchased P&G’s products from the company. These retailers then sold P&G’s goods to “consumers” who used the products.
But P&G didn’t focus solely on serving its customers. Nor did it focus solely on serving its consumers. It focused on serving both because to serve only one would mean disaster for the long-term business. It focused on its stakeholders.
What is a stakeholder?
Setting aside Merriam-Webster’s first definition (which is specific to betting), the definitions of a stakeholder are “one that has a stake in an enterprise” and “one who is involved in or affected by a course of action.”
For P&G, both customers (retailers) and consumers (people) are stakeholders because they are “involved in or affected by” P&G’s actions. Additionally, shareholders and employees are stakeholders because they have a “stake in (the) enterprise.”
As a result, P&G is actually a “stakeholder-driven” company in which, as former CEO AG Lafley said in 2008, the “consumer is boss.”
How to be a stakeholder-driven organization
Focusing solely on customers is a dangerous game because it means that other stakeholders who are critical to your organization’s success may not get their needs met and, as a result, may stop supporting your work.
Instead, you need to understand, prioritize, and serve all of your stakeholders
Here’s how to do that:
- Identify ALL of your stakeholders. Think broadly, considering ALL the people inside and outside your organization who have a stake or are involved or affected by your work.
- Inside your organization: Who are the people who need to approve your work? Who will fund it? Who influences these decisions? Who will be involved in bringing your solution to life? Who will use it? Who could act as a barrier to any or all of these things?
- Outside your organization: Who will pay for your solution? Who will use your solution? Who influences these decisions? Who could act as a barrier?
- Talk to your stakeholders and understand what motivates them. For each of the people you identify by asking the above questions, take time to actually go talk to them – don’t email them, don’t send a survey, actually go have a conversation – and seek to understand they’re point of view. What are the biggest challenges they are facing? Why is this challenging? What is preventing them from solving it? What motivates them, including incentives and metrics they need to deliver against? What would get them to embrace a solution? What would cause them to reject a solution?
- Map points of agreement and difference amongst your stakeholder. Take a step back and consider all the insights from all of your stakeholders. What are the common views, priorities, incentives, or barriers? What are the disagreements or points of tension? For example, do your buyers prioritize paying a low price over delivering best-in-class performance while your users prioritize performance over price? Are there priorities or barriers that, even though they’re unique to a single stakeholder, you must address?
- Prioritize your stakeholder by answering, “Who’s the boss?” Just as AG Lafley put a clear stake in the ground when he declared that, amongst all of P&G’s stakeholders, that the consumer was boss, challenge yourself to identify the “boss” for your work. For medical device companies, perhaps “the boss” is the surgeon who uses the device and the hospital executive who has the power to approve the purchase. For a non-profit, perhaps it’s the donors who contribute a majority of the operating budget. For an intrapreneur working to improve an internal process, perhaps it’s the person who is responsible for managing the process once it’s implemented. To be clear, you don’t focus on “the boss” to the exclusion of the other stakeholders but you do prioritize serving the boss.
- Create an action plan for each stakeholder. Once you’ve spent time mapping, understanding, and prioritizing the full landscape of your stakeholder’s problems, priorities, and challenges, create a plan to address each one. Some plans may focus on the design, features, functions, manufacturing, and other elements of your solution. Some plans may focus on the timing and content of proactive communication. And some plans may simply outline how to respond to questions or a negative incident.
Yes, it’s important to understand and serve your customers. But doing so is insufficient for long-term success. Identifying, understanding, and serving all of your stakeholders is required for long-term sustainability.
Next time you start a project, don’t just ask “Who is my customer?” as “Who are my stakeholders?” The answers my surprise you. Putting those answers into action through the solutions you create and the results they produce will delight you.
Originally published on March 23, 2020 on Forbes.com