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Why brands are failing to listen to customers—and how to fix that

Data is important, but it can’t replace real conversations with actual customers

Why brands are failing to listen to customers—and how to fix that

As terabytes of consumer data are collected every day, companies have more information than ever about their customers. But that doesn’t mean they understand what those customers need—or how best to serve them.

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Without a clear understanding of what customers are experiencing, executives put their brands at risk, according to Andy MacMillan, CEO of UserTesting, which helps companies collect video feedback from their customers. As the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates, a company’s survival in challenging times often requires a strong, meaningful audience connection and swift action to meet customer needs.

So, what can companies do to more effectively tap into customer experiences and build lasting relationships? Here, MacMillan and Rick Reuter, a principal in the financial services industry practice for consultant Deloitte, discuss what’s preventing companies from listening to their customers, the importance of human connections, and how companies should be thinking about the customer experience post-COVID-19.

Companies have access to tons of customer information. So what are companies missing? Why isn’t that data enough?

Andy MacMillan: We’ve become really algorithm dependent. Data and algorithms are useful. But they also mean we aim for the average: What does the average buyer want? We don’t ever learn about the exceptions. It’s become very sterile, and I think we all sense and feel that. The challenge for companies is how to get real feedback from people outside the company, and how to use that feedback to put the team in the shoes of the customer.

How do companies get that real feedback from their customers?

MacMillan: I think you have to be deliberate about the idea that you can’t just stand entirely behind the technology. You have to decide it’s important for people in your company to talk to customers.

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If you’re a bank, go out and get 10 or 15 people without deep technology backgrounds to walk you through what it’s like for them to bank online. Then we pull that video in-house and let the teams watch and see what it’s like to be that customer. Or for an airline, it means asking a premium flyer who is not very tech-savvy what it’s like to book travel for his or her family. How do you get your tech team to understand how to alleviate some of those flyer’s concerns, when your team is not the demographic we’re talking about? That’s the personal aspect I’m talking about that’s missing.

Rick Reuter: And sometimes it’s just having a real person pick up the phone. So, it’s not 15 menus of connecting through a call-center app. It’s “Hello, Mr. Reuter, how can we help you? We saw that you did this today. Is that what you’re calling about?”

How is COVID-19 changing the landscape for how companies are expected to interact with customers?

Reuter: I think companies now are getting more and more connected with the human experience than they have in the past decade, and I think it’s refreshing that we have this technology infrastructure to adapt quickly. We just need to continue to make that a priority.

MacMillan: The question, even six months ago, was “How do I squeeze out more margin for myself as a company?” Now for the first time in a while, we’re seeing companies actually thinking about customers and taking measures to keep us safe. This situation has caused us to go back to a time before we relied on the algorithms. We’re saying, “Hey, let’s go talk to some customers. Let’s find out what their needs are and figure out how to service those needs.” It’s a remarkably simple formula, but I would say that hasn’t been the heart of what we’ve been doing for the past decade.

When the COVID-19 crisis ends, what’s going to happen to these customer-centric changes? Will they continue? 

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MacMillan: It’s going to be difficult for businesses to just snap back to the assumptions we had six months ago about how everything works.

One of the changes companies should keep is how they’ve empowered employees on the front lines. A coffee chain I go to, each [outlet] had different ways of implementing carryout-only procedures to keep people safe. It was very smart. It was like all the rules had been thrown out the window—instead of a uniform corporate policy, the company trusted employees to make some rational decisions on how to keep themselves safe, how to keep our customers safe, how to adapt to this unprecedented situation.

Reuter: That’s a culture where employees feel empowered and they feel ownership of the problem, which creates opportunity. I think that’s a great example of a large enterprise creating some local angles to be successful.

How can companies empower individual employees in a smart way?

MacMillan: It’s about culture and values. You hear front-line retail workers say, “I wish I could do the right thing more often for people.” And often it isn’t really about the money. It’s just trying to treat people the right way, trying to solve a problem in a restaurant, in a store, whatever that might be.

There’s also something to be said for hiring good people, conveying your shared values as a company and empowering those people to make good decisions in line with your values.

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As companies rise to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and try to meet customer needs, what’s the biggest thing they can do to improve their listening?

MacMillan: I think the issue isn’t for or against technology. I think it’s how do we layer in perspective and actually care about the customer in an authentic way? We talk about an empathy gap, and what we mean by that is, it’s not like people go to work every day and don’t care about the customers; it’s that they don’t have the perspective. They don’t actually get to see these customers and talk to them to know that they’re not hitting the mark.

The lesson companies can take away from this crisis is the way it’s caused us to go, “Hey, wait. I need to find out what the customers really need, and then go figure it out.” And as customers, we’re delighted that they seem to care.

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