The Customer is Usually Right and Always has Something Important to Say.

1 05 2009

I recall the day early in my career when I worked in Penn Station in NYC fixing public pay phones. (Cellphones were not invented at until the mid-80s!).  A very large man – about 6’ 6” 250 lbs- called me over to where he was using the phone and told me the phone was broken.  It didn’t seem broken and I told him so.  Thereupon, he ripped the phone off the wall and broke the handset into two pieces. NOW THE PHONE WAS REALLY BROKEN!! 

As a young engineer this left me with an indelible impression.  My company, the Bell System, trained me to believe that our products were great.  My boss even told me that there is no reason to improve our products.  But when I saw what the customer did and then talked with him, I realized that our opinion mattered some, but the customers’ opinions mattered more.  And that experience was the start of my conversion from engineering to the “dark side” of marketing.

I learned over the years that a good marketing executive talks with the customers regularly.  Clearly, the way we talk with the customers is different in this digital age and different in some cultures.  In Japan, for example, engineers sometimes take their products to the homes of their customers to see how the product is installed and used.   Think about this concept in today’s market with software and computer products.  Wouldn’t it be great to understand how the customer manages the human machine interface and problems that might exist?   Sure, research has most likely been conducted in the past, perhaps in a controlled environment, and the interface and usability already debated, analyzed and engineered.  Yet, in a real live setting you may get different reactions.  For all of your older folks – or historians of automobiles- I just ask:  Do you remember the Edsel?  It’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the point.  

In several hotel chains, the executives regularly take on front line jobs to get the reactions of the customers – and get to solve  real everyday problems.   Not only do these executives hear directly from customers, but also they understand the problems the front line people face and circumstances they endure.  As you “go to market,” these interactions affect customer satisfaction, your brand, and profitability.   The prescription: find ways to reguarly meet and listen to customers in their own setting.

As a Vice President for US Cellular, I regularly listened to customer service center calls and participated actively in “mystery shopping.”  All this helped me, as a marketing executive, improve the brand experience.  Did the front line support the brand as we showed in our TV ads and heard on radio?  Were the representations correct?    After mystery shopping, I took the time to meet the front line and their managers to share what I learned and correct problems.  We also took to time to share these leanings with others in the company because marketing must be the voice of the customer. 

Today the world is very different with social networks, blogs, and Twitter providing customer reactions in real time.  And the marketer must be able to listen and synthesize this information coming from different sources at lightning speed.   This type of customer listening will not replace other market research or customer satisfaction studies.  Those are needed as well.  Just remember, different customer groups respond to products differently.   The younger generation might just tweet their satisfaction (creating a nice positive viral buzz) or dissatisfaction which has other dire consequences.   Others may post their ratings on YELP or Amazon’s product reviews- a little slower perhaps but just as permanent.

The lesson learned is that we must synchronize to our customers’ time cycle, not our own.  We need to keep our antenna up and listen to all channels for the keys to product performance, customer satisfaction, new products, and ultimately to profitability.   And we must use the right listening posts- conventional and digital- to understand and react as appropriate to customers’ opinions.   While the voice of the customer is sometimes the voice of reason, it is always a voice to which must listen.

Thanks for reading.

david

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10 responses

1 05 2009
Vicky

Thanks very much for this post. Just this morning I stuck a post-it note to the front of my computer that said, “Listen. Don’t just wait for your turn to talk.” The lesson I learned from your post is that there is one thing the customer is ALWAYS right about — he/she is always knows whether he/she is happy or unhappy. And, whether his/her response is pulling a phone out of the wall or just quietly walking down the street to another vendor, the response is the direct result of what he/she is right about. And it’s the customer’s response — not the final score of the Who’s Right War — that has the ultimate impact on the vendor’s business.

4 05 2009
Vicky

I wanted you to know that excerpted your post on my blog. I attributed the post to you and embedded a link to this post, as well as a link to your blog in general. It ought to show up as an “authority” in the blog search engines like technorati and elevate your blog’s ranking.

4 05 2009
David Friedman

Vicky

thanks for letting me know. all the best.

david

1 05 2009
Babar Bhatti

Thats a nice post David. Its easy to forget this simple thing and we need to remember this. Keep up the good work!

1 05 2009
kevinliebl

David – excellent post. I couldn’t agree more. We all get too busy with “running the business” to listen to customers. In most cases, there is nothing more important than listening to the customer. Nice post.

2 05 2009
Terry

My own experience with Apple Corporation illustrates your point. I succombed to the slow draw of the iPod technology about 5 years ago and now live on podcasts, downloads and a growing digital library delivered through my multiple iPod devices. I suspect I’ll soon be drawn to the iPhone as it too looks like a lifestyle enhancing device/technology. However, I would never have guessed a year ago that my wife, me and my children are all Mac users having converted from PC’s over the past few years. I attribute my surrender to Apple’s innovative customer-orientation; from product development, marketing and most notably – bold retail approach. I daresay, Apple’s customer-first approach has most likely won a customer for life.

2 05 2009
The customer is always right « That Animal Eats Deer

[…] The customer is always right David Friedman tells this humbling story: […]

3 05 2009
Reminder To Marketing: Listen To Your Customers | Tea Break

[…] an interesting post from a marketing executive who started his career as an engineer. The advice below applies to all, […]

3 05 2009
Reminder To Marketing: Listen To Your Customers | Tea Break

[…] an interesting post from a marketing executive who started his career as an engineer. The advice below applies to all, […]

4 05 2009
David Friedman

I don’t mind having my blog reposted. Please attribute the blog to me though. Thanks.

david

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