The rise of social media has given way to a unique phenomenon I like to call “screaming into the void of the internet”.
Brands of all shapes and sizes must now maintain their own anthropomorphized Twitter accounts—often with unique handles for specific business units—in order to either respond in kind or bear witness to all kinds of vitriol or praise from their customer base.
And the ratio between “vitriol” to “praise” will likely vary depending on the brand, with cable providers at one end of the spectrum, and snarky fast food restaurants on the other.
I’m guilty of it, too.
At one particularly low moment in my career, I found myself sniping back and forth with Delta Airlines’ Twitter handle about having my seat moved on a flight home from a business trip. At the time, performatively rage-Tweeting “@” the brand seemed like it was the only way for me to have palpable control over my lot in life.
And in the end, nothing about my situation changed—I successfully made it home from Detroit, albeit in the rear of the airplane—but I felt in that moment that, as a customer, my voice was finally being heard.
If your brand is dealing with far more negative comments than heart emojis, then you’ve been hearing a lot from your customers, but you probably aren’t listening to them. Hearing and listening are two different things: responding to a request in the moment is instantaneous and helps to gratify a user right then-and-there.
Aggregating a collection of feedback, understanding it and analyzing it to help enact real change within your organization is something else entirely. Listening reflects a company’s ability to connect and respond to what their customers are actually asking for.
Product marketers are particularly adept at listening to their end-users, internalizing their feedback, and then acting as a customer surrogate, addressing all manner of internal audiences in “the customers’ voice”. But if a product management team, marketing team, sales organization, or even executive leadership chooses to ignore that voice, then they do so at their peril.
Here are a few ways that a product marketer can listen to their customers, and then speak more clearly and effectively with internal audiences by using their voice:
Don’t just have empathy, live it
Product marketers are always finding new ways to explain to other people what they do for a living. For me, I try to couch it within the idea that product marketing is just like “regular marketing”, but we’re singularly focused on both the challenges that our customers face on a daily basis, and the benefits that our product can provide to address those needs.
In this way, I’ve placed the concept of customer empathy directly at the center of what I do.
Put into practice, I need to truly understand what keeps my customers awake at night in order to better do my job. Once I know their challenges, it’s easier for me to craft messaging that can help show the true value of my product or services, because the benefits they offer are the polar opposite of the difficulties that they’re facing.
Finding common ground with customers should be easy, but how do you use that as a platform from which you can speak with a customer’s voice? The first way is to actually talk with your customers, establishing a rapport with them that helps you better immerse yourself in their day to day lives. (We’ll get to that in a moment).
The second way is to remove yourself and your own opinions from conversations for which you’re serving as a conduit for customer’s experiences.
No matter how humble you might be as a person, leaving your ego at the door isn’t always easy in a professional setting. But in conversations where you’re acting as the representative for the customer base, phrases like “I think”, “I feel”, and “in my opinion” need to be excised from the dialogue.
But it doesn’t mean that you’re replacing the first-person pronoun with the name of the last customer you spoke to—that could lead to “voice of the customer” getting drowned out by the cacophony of “anecdotal feedback”.
With his dying words, Mr. Spock said that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, and that holds true here. Make sure to use phrases like “our customers” or “this core type of user” as opposed to the name of a key decision maker at a large client when serving as the clients’ representative.
Establishing yourself as an unbiased cipher for the needs and wants of your customer base doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t mean that your opinions are forever subsumed by your duties as a customer surrogate; but regular rhetorical differentiation between the things that you believe and the things that your customers believe can help lay the groundwork for the organization to recognize the clear line of separation that you maintain in your mind.
Talk to your customers (obviously)
As an enterprise buyer, I have a pretty dim view of case studies. There isn’t a company on the face of the planet that goes through the effort of interviewing a client, writing material, and gussying it up into a downloadable piece of content for a story that paints the product in a less-than-stellar light. I
t’s for that reason that my standard operating procedure for case study creation is to avoid going into the initial client conversation with an “angle” or a point-to-prove about my product. I’ll spend the first awkward moments of a meeting making small talk that ultimately helps me understand who this person is and what makes them tick.
This serves a two-fold purpose:
1) In 15-20 minutes, I can begin to ascertain how complex or challenging their job is, where their pain points are, and the core reasons why they bought our product in the first place.
2) I can begin building a level of rapport and trust that lets them know that I’m not someone who’s only digging for a positive story about their regular use of our toolset, but someone who’s just like them: an individual contributor or senior manager, director of product or CMO, who’s just trying to get a job done and go home to their family.
Once common ground is achieved, that’s when the easy part begins—getting answers to the key questions:
- “What was your life like before my product entered it, and what’s it like now?”
- “It can’t be all rainbows and bubble gum, so what other challenges do you have that are parallel to the ones that we solve, or even perpendicular?”
- “If you had a tricked-out DeLorean parked outside and you could go back in time to a moment before my product entered your life, what kinds of messages and language would resonate with you to help you make the same buying decision that got you right here, right now?”
- “You’ve now got a rapt audience—what else would you like me to know about you, your daily set of tasks, and how our product fits in?”
I try to use this same methodology when I’m having literally any conversation with our customer, regardless of any case study-related ulterior motives. Build trust, gather feedback, and keep the conversation open, honest, and easy.
Now, if you’re an enterprise company, you’ll have a far easier time using these types of conversations to paint a profile in your mind of who your client truly is, and refining the profile of the person whose voice comes out of your mouth when you’re called upon to be the customer surrogate.
On average, you should be having at least one of these types of conversations per month, if not more. But if your company appeals to a wide range of personas, or a varied group of customers in markets all over the world, extrapolating relevant insights on the back of one-to-one conversations gets a bit trickier.
If you work for a brand that has a more B2C focus, serves the mid-market or SMB audiences, is more global or international in scope, or you lack a narrow set of personas, then getting back to the old standby methods of focus groups, customer panels, and client communities is a great way to have some of the same empathy-building activity, but in a more scalable way.
Keep in mind that the goal is still the same: you’re not trying to simply gather data for the purposes of spitting it back to internal stakeholders—that’s “hearing”, not “listening”. You’re trying to aggregate and understand a set of problems that a plurality (not necessarily a majority) of those customers have, and be able to elucidate those problems in a clear and concise way to those who are willing to hear about them.
Use the damn product
The old adage of “not judging someone unless you walk a mile in their shoes” applies here, particularly when you’re hoping to accurately represent a user or a user base in internal conversations.
Having a mile-deep, mile-wide understanding of the product helps to add context to every conversation that you’ll have with your client counterparts, and you may find that your own usage is consciously or subconsciously affected by those interactions.
I can’t tell you how many times a customer conversation opened my eyes to a problem with our product that I was heretofore unaware of. By absorbing these insights, helping to recognize commonalities in your customers’ use of the product, and making use of the product yourself to test out those theories and experiencing the same pain (or joy), will help you better represent those feelings to key constituencies within your organization.
Avoid the void
The core problem with “screaming into the void of the internet” is that the end user almost always comes away with a hollow victory as opposed to a lasting one. Maybe you’ll get a coupon for a free pizza, $10 off next month’s bill, or an extra 20,000 frequent flier miles for your trouble. But the core issue that you were complaining about will never get solved.
So if you’re on the receiving end of some feedback from a customer during the course of your regular communication with them—no matter how negative or severe—make a note of it and try to follow up when you can.
Well-connected product marketers are probably pretty immersed in roadmap development or sprint planning, so if you see that their bug is being fixed or a new feature that they’ve been coveting is on the horizon, reach back out to the customer who had the problem and give them a sneak preview. It lets them know that the time they spent with you wasn’t a waste, and that this discussion wasn’t simply a social call, but a meeting with clear action items and next steps.
Remember, this is a privilege
They’re overused words, but I’ve always felt a sense of both honor and duty when I’ve been called upon to represent our customers in internal conversations. As a company, we’ve been entrusted with hard-earned capital to help them solve for key challenges. And as a product marketer, I’ve been entrusted with carrying their feedback and feelings inwards to the organization with the hope of bringing about positive change.
When it’s done properly, listening to your customer, speaking in their voice, and responding back to them as the voice of the company, can lead to a more client-driven product roadmap, pricing strategy, positioning framework, brand outlook...and the list goes on. When it’s done poorly, you’re left Tweeting back to an angry traveler stuck in the bulkhead seat on a flight home from Michigan who’s just trying to improve his lot in life.
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