When Personas Go Wrong or, The Search for Fluffy

The woman on stage proudly told the conference audience how her team had spent three days to find just the right kitten for Emily.

Emily was a single working mother in her early 30s who lived with her 4-year-old daughter in a two-bedroom apartment. She was on a limited budget and often pressed for time. She also loved cats. Hence the search for the perfect kitten. The thing was, Emily didn’t exist. Emily was a persona dreamed up by the marketing team. The aim of the team was to create a series of recipes that used the company’s products — a series of recipes just for Emily. And they spent (wasted) three days looking for a photo of a kitten to accompany a made-up person.

I’ll be honest. I have a few problems with Emily — and others just like her.

Personas with too narrow a focus

By focusing on an individual as a persona you can narrow your focus too much and miss a large percentage of the customers and prospects who might benefit from your message. By creating messages “just for Emily,” the team was ignoring a wider need for anyone who wanted to create quick, nutritious meals on a limited budget. Personas should be focused on addressing customer needs, not on developing fictional characters.

It’s a marketing point of view

Often, as with Emily, personas are developed by the marketing team with little or no interaction with actual customers. Marketing teams are often organizationally isolated from everyday interaction with customers, which can lead to personas that reflect what the marketing team thinks customers are looking for, rather than what customers actually need and how they go about finding information. It is essential that your marketing team take into account real-life customer experiences and needs.

Customers are changing

I have seen many personas documented along the lines of “Emily goes to the website to do initial research, checks reviews on mobile, and uses the app to purchase.”

The customer experience evolves rapidly. I know my digital behavior patterns have changed over the last 12 months. You need to keep up with these changes. How often do you review personas to ensure that they keep up with new technologies and changes in how customers interact with your brand?

Still part of the “Sell and Forget” model

Historically, personas have focused on the buying behavior of a given set of potential customers. They are designed to drive people along the traditional sales funnel from awareness to lead to prospect to sale. But that only represents a small part of a customer’s overall interaction with a company.

How do personas fit with the continuous customer journey?

Once prospects become customers they shouldn’t be forgotten and neither should the relevant personas. How do your personas interact with your brand from delivery of the product through owning, operating, and getting support? Do you understand the full customer life-cycle of your personas and how their journey across every interaction with your company is connected and mapped?

Get that right and the satisfied customer persona can be your best advocate to generate even more business.

Was the kitten really necessary?

When you are developing needs-driven personas to help you understand customer behavior, your process needs to be systematic, efficient, and based on data. Building an emotional backstory for a character is all well and good if you are working on your latest novel, but it can be a time-consuming misdirection in developing effective customer-driven personas. How many customer interviews could that marketing team have done during the time it took to find the perfect photo of Fluffy?

Not Another @#$&! Survey

We all do it. Come on, admit it. I do it a lot.

You’re at the store and while giving you your receipt (which is probably three times as long as it needs to be), the cashier grabs a pen, circles or highlights a QR code or website address, forces a smile (if you’re lucky), and asks you to take a survey to “Let us know how we’re doing.”

Do you take those surveys? Probably not. I suspect that most people do what I do: toss the receipt in the nearest trash can.

Considering that I earn my living in the customer experience industry and like to think of myself as a customer advocate, it seems a little disingenuous of me to ignore those attempts to capture my voice as a customer.

Survey fatigue

The problem is that those sorts of surveys actually contribute to poor customer experience. Why should I provide a retailer with feedback and information that generates no tangible value for me?


I suspect that most customer surveys just add to a stockpile of data that no one looks at. This is just data collection for the sake of data collection, an exercise undertaken so someone can check the box when asked if the company has a program for capturing customer feedback. And when every retailer does it, the impact is the same as it would be if no one did. The surveys become meaningless. We have reached a point of survey fatigue.

Stop asking, start listening

When the average response rate to customer surveys tops off at around 10 percent, isn’t it time to stop doing them? Or at least stop doing them the way we are? If we really want to develop effective strategies for capturing the voices of our customers, it’s time to stop asking questions and start listening instead.

That doesn’t mean that surveys can’t be a useful tool. If used correctly, they can be a great way to start a conversation with your customers.
When engaged in a consulting gig, I often use surveys as a way to develop an understanding of how people feel and what works (or doesn’t) with the processes and technology the organization is using. These surveys get response rates of 60 to 90 percent and provide a lot of useful insights. Rather than blanketing a large group of people with generic questions, I target the surveys to discrete groups, with questions that relate to their day-to-day activities and that demonstrate an understanding of what the respondents are trying to accomplish and the challenges they face.


Surveys and voice-of-the-customer strategies should not just be about answering the question “How are we doing?” They should ask, “How can we improve things for you?”

Know the customer, help the customer

Every time you reach out to customers, you should demonstrate that you have listened well enough to know their needs and that you can help them. As a minimum, to demonstrate that you know the customer, tailor the conversation around the following topics:

  • What products they use.
  • What interactions they’ve had with your organization.
  • What’s important to them.

Then you need to demonstrate that, if they provide you with feedback and share information, you can add value and help them in the following ways:

  • Making their lives easier.
  • Reassuring them and/or directing to them more information.
  • Teaching them things that might be helpful.
  • Rewarding them.

Gathering useful information and opinions from your customers requires you to do more than simply gather data. The purpose of the exercise should be to develop an understanding of their needs and challenges. By responding in ways that add value, you demonstrate that you understand your customers, which will help you capture their true voice.

Are Your Customers Shouting Into The Void?

Many years ago I ran the support organization for a small software company. We had a whiteboard on the wall opposite the area of the office where my team sat. Everyone walking into the break room could see it. It showed the number of customer calls or emails we had each week, how many support tickets were still open, and how many we had resolved.

Above it sat another sign that said, “We are not a black hole.”

Don’t ignore customers

While the figures on the board were what we reported to the CEO each week, it was that simple informal sign that became our mantra. We didn’t want our customers to feel as though their requests for service were disappearing into a black hole. Let’s face it: no one likes being ignored, but more often than not ignoring people is the standard operating procedure of many support organizations. Even if it isn’t intentional, that’s often the way it appears to the customer.

It used to be easy to monitor and listen to your customers. They either called, emailed, or even wrote actual letters (remember those?) when they had problems. There was really no excuse for being a black hole and not responding to them. Today, providing support is much a more complex undertaking. There are an overwhelming number of channels that customers can use to communicate with you, and while you may be able to monitor most of them, it is almost impossible to capture them all — especially when customers come up with new, unofficial channels to make themselves heard, like the gentleman who was so unhappy with a company that he painted his complaints on the side of a van.

In my experience, companies respond to the voice of the customer in one of four ways:

  1. Ignore it.
  2. Capture it and do nothing.
  3. Acknowledge there is a problem but take no action.
  4. Acknowledge the problem and provide a solution.

Unfortunately, the response to any given request too often depends on when and where within the organization it was received and handled. This leads to an uneven experience. Companies do better when they treat customer input as a single unified data set.

Empathy first, followed by action

So how do you go about using that data set to deliver what the customer needs? The first rule of thumb goes back to not being a black hole. Acknowledge that the customer has a problem. Do that, and you’ll be way ahead of most companies. However, while empathy is all well and good, customers prefer action to empathy.

How do you enable your teams to take actions that help customers?

Give your customer-facing teams access to intelligent content.[fn: For more on Intelligent Content I recommend Intelligent Content: A Primer by Ann Rockley, Charles Cooper, and Scott Abel. (XML Press) 978-1937434465. ] Content is an expression of everything a company does, and it needs to be valued as an asset across a company. To solve customer problems and provide positive actionable feedback, you need to be able to tap into that pool of content in efficient ways that allow the right pieces of knowledge to be pulled together to provide personalized responses. That content can come from knowledge bases, technical documentation, support articles, operating schedules, customer profiles, or machine-learning chatbots. Match that content with current marketing campaigns and offers, and you can pull together positive customer experiences that help solve problems, further engage the customer, and continue to build brand engagement.

This comes down to taking a holistic, strategic view, this time in regard to your content. Look not only at what your content was created for but also at where else you can use it to answer customers’ questions. That is not a quick or easy task, but it is one that increases efficiency, leverages your content assets, and allows you to respond to the voice of the customer in the best possible way.

Let the Customer Experience Drive Your Technology Design

It all started with a new Christmas decoration my wife had set her heart on. She’d been back and forth wondering if she should buy it. Last weekend, we found ourselves back in the store, where she eventually decided it would be ideal for a space on the hallway table.

And so we found ourselves at the register, ready to pay for the new decoration. As is the case at most stores these days, the transaction was processed through a payment terminal card reader. You know, the sort where you can either insert or slide your card, or sometimes even wave your phone over it to pay for goods. It was no different from the hundreds of other terminals that we have encountered when shopping: In addition to the places where you could physically insert your card, it had a nice screen, a keypad and an electronic touch pen. 

All went well until my wife got to a screen asking her to confirm the amount. The green OK icon on the screen was an exact image of the green OK button on the keypad, so she pressed the button on the keypad. Several times. Nothing happened. I tried it too. Still nothing happened. At which point the sales associate smiled and said, “Oh, everyone does that. You need to press the OK on the touchscreen.”

An Experience Problem

There was no text on the screen to indicate that it was active, so why in that case was the OK icon made to look exactly like the corresponding button on the keypad? Or why wasn’t the system designed to accept input from either the screen or the keypad?

If “everyone” tries the keypad first, then you have an experience problem.

Two steps later, after my wife had inserted her debit card, the screen flashed up a question asking what sort of card it was. Why didn’t it recognize the card from the data swipe? The list of options it gave for the card type were clearly being driven from a backend financial system and the terms it used had no relevance to the average shopper. The sales associate had a cheat-sheet that allowed her to identify the correct response needed for the average bank-issued debit card. 

If you are presenting everyday consumers with professional jargon that an employee has to translate, then you have an experience problem.

Focus on the Needs of the User

As these sort of encounters tend to do, our shopping trip got me thinking about customer experience technology. 

It used to be that most technology interfaces with a customer interaction point were system-specific: One type of action being served and captured by one piece of technology. However, as the customer experience technology stack has evolved, we now have single interaction points that are either driven by, or feed, multiple backend systems. We also have, as is the case with the payment terminal, interfaces being developed that combine different ways of entering responses or acknowledging actions. 

When to use which action, and which technology to use, can be a difficult trade-off, but more often than not we find those decisions are being driven by the limitations of the technology rather than the needs of the user. By the time my wife had finished paying for her decoration, she had used the screen, the keypad and the pen. Why did that transaction need three separate types of action, when it all could have been done on a touchscreen?

Experience Should Inform Design

I’ve long been a believer that system limitations shouldn’t drive the experience. Rather, the experience should inform the system’s design. 

As the technology stack continues to evolve, we shouldn’t be throwing new technologies at individual problems, we should be taking a holistic outside-in view of how those new solutions will impact the way our customers do business with us. I realize that may not always be practical, but it’s a philosophy we should strive for when developing and implementing customer experience technology.

This is the season when we get to wish for a better world, and I’d like us to move toward one where the customer experience is a seamless, frictionless affair driven by great innovative technology.

By the way, my wife was right: The new decoration looks perfect on the hallway table. Happy holidays!

Is Your Voice of the Customer Program All Talk and No Action?

voice-of-the-customer-feedback-survey

A recent conversation reminiscing about those far-off days when we could go out to eat and attend all sorts of types of entertainment reminded me of a couple of customer experiences in the fast-food world that left an impression – not always good.

A Hot and Cold Customer Experience

On the way to a concert one evening, my wife and I stopped to grab a quick meal at one of our regular Tex-Mex fast-food restaurants. After patiently waiting in line, we got to the front and the server asked, “Can you wait a few minutes while I fill these online orders?”

I was not impressed with them giving priority to online customers over those who took the time and effort to be in the store, so I tweeted my displeasure. By the time we were sitting in our seats at the concert an hour later I had received an apologetic response from the company’s social media team and a promise to follow up.

The follow up was an email on Monday with a generic “please rate your experience” survey attached. The good feeling created by the social media team’s quick response was undermined by the apparent disconnect with the customer service process.

Bland Food, Seasoned Service

Contrast that to another occasion when I ordered delivery from another local fast-food chain. They emailed me when the order left the restaurant with a link to an interactive app where I could actually track the driver’s progress towards our house.

The food arrived ahead of schedule, hot and well presented with a print out on each container with the details of each individual order. But it wasn’t as tasty as we felt it should be based on our in-store experience — none of the food had enough of the sauces that give the chain its distinct flavor.

The following day I had a survey call from them too. Not a generic email, not even a robocall automated survey, but an actual person who listened. When I mentioned the lack of flavor she said she’d pass it on. An hour later I had a call from the manager of the local restaurant asking for details of why we weren’t 100 percent satisfied with the taste of our meals.

Guess which chain will get our service next time we want some fast food?

Suffering From Survey Fatigue

There’s a well-worn saying that we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we speak. Too many companies use surveys to try and measure the customer experience, and in doing so say they are listening to, and capturing, the voice of the customer. But the truth is that these don’t really work.

We are all suffering from survey fatigue. Every single store on a recent shopping trip asked us to fill in a survey by going to a URL the sales associate helpfully circled on the receipt. It sometimes feels as if you can’t undertake any retail transaction these days without being surveyed.

And how many of these do you fill in, or respond to? I’ve seen and heard industry statistics that suggest that up to 90 percent of customer experience surveys are ignored. Why?

Some of the most common reasons for the low response rates include:

  • Too many surveys from too many sources
  • Sending surveys after too much time has elapsed since the customer’s interaction
  • Expecting the customer to initiate the action (i.e. “Please go to this website and let us know what you thought”)
  • Customers don’t see any changes due to the feedback they give, so they stop giving it.

The last point speaks to the heart of the problem: companies are collecting data, but they are not listening to what the customer is saying.

A survey on voice-of-the-customer programs revealed that:

  • 75 percent of companies are only collecting or analyzing data without deriving many actionable insights
  • 46 percent are only collecting data without analyzing or doing anything relevant with it
  • 23 percent collaborate around this data with other groups
  • Only 2 percent transform their business using collected data and insights derived from it.

The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Customer Experience

How can you change that? Firstly by acknowledging there are two distinct types of questions you can ask in order to measure the customer experience: “What?” and “Why?

“What” questions may be the best way to capture data. They pose questions such as: What is the level of customer satisfaction? What is the likelihood to recommend? By collecting answers to these and similar questions, surveys can provide answers related to why satisfaction ratings are high or low but are often without context.

“Why” questions provide context and sentiment: Why is this customer calling? Why is that customer pleased or upset? Why, exactly, does this customer want to return, cancel or upgrade?  Interaction data includes customers’ open cases, phone calls, helpdesk tickets, sales orders or any other customer interaction information that gets recorded and tracked.

In order to derive the most meaningful insights from collected data, companies need not only to understand the “what” and the “why” of customer interactions, but must also be able to correlate the two. Customer experience managers need to take a holistic approach and consider both the feedback and interaction data as one unified data set.

By taking a holistic viewpoint of measuring the customer experience, it becomes easier to identify and plan actionable changes. A customer experience manager can start from a single customer mention of canceling service in a call recording and roll up from there to view survey scores, Net Promoter Score responses, and other related feedback.

The magnitude of the problem can then be assessed by rolling up to satisfaction levels related to certain features of the product or service in question. If the issue is compelling enough to merit a response beyond that to the individual customer, it will be easy to define an action plan accordingly.

The Start of a Relationship

When the customers know they are listened to, and that their feedback is bringing measurable results and changes, they are more likely to continue to respond and develop an ongoing relationship.

After all, listening is the key to any successful relationship.

 

The Fundamentals of Digital Experience Project Planning

Planning-Meeting

No one said implementing a new digital experience project would be easy, and if they did then they have totally underestimated what was involved.

Implementing a customer-centric digital transformation plan involves a lot of moving parts. Unfortunately, most of these projects quickly lose focus on the “customer-centric” part and become all about the “digital” part.

Let the Experience Drive the Systems Design

Focusing on technology, although still complicated, is in many ways the least challenging part of changing the digital experience. We can go out and look at all the fancy vendor demos, issue requests for proposals, run proof of concepts. It’s an easy way to show that we are making progress on the project.

However, putting technology first often means we end up either digitizing the existing process without making things easier for the customer, or we end up having systems limitations drive the experience when instead it should be the desired experience that drives the system’s design.

Avoiding the tool trap is easy. Don’t allow yourself to start talking about technology and software until you understand what the real challenges are. What problems are you trying to solve? Why are there problems? What do those problems cost your organization? And what are you willing to do to make those problems go away?

3 Fundamentals of DX Project Planning

When it comes to transforming the digital experience, the problems you need to solve aren’t only internal ones, they are first and foremost those of your customers. And only by exploring three essential aspects of planning a digital experience project will you truly address those problems.

1. Know Your Customer

I’m sure you know who your customers are. You probably know what pages on your website they visit, what whitepapers they download. You know what products they buy.

You probably also do many follow-up surveys to find out what they thought of their interactions with your brand. Ninety percent of your customers ignore those surveys because they’re about scoring your internal processes, not fulfilling a customer’s need.

Knowing your customer is not about knowing how they interact with your existing processes, it’s about knowing why they do what they do. What problems are they trying to solve? The digital experience shouldn’t be defined by what your products do, it should be defined by what your customers need.

2. Follow Your Customer

Customer journey maps can be a very useful tool, and I’m sure we’ve all developed them. They help define strategies and approaches to delivering experiences.

The problem with these customer journey maps is that the customers don’t see them and don’t always follow along with the nice routes we’ve mapped out for them. Customers drop in and out of the theoretical maps. Typical customer lifecycles are made up of many, often disjointed, customer journeys.

While using techniques like analytics may help bring some of those disjointed journeys to light, the best way to truly follow the customer is to walk in their footsteps and perform the tasks they do to solve their problems. By conducting a practical test of the digital experience, you can discover the bottlenecks and roadblocks that need fixing and identify opportunities to deliver additional value.

3. Understand Your Customer

Delivering real value to the customer comes from examining the gaps between the multiple disjointed customer journeys.

Whenever customers aren’t interacting with your systems is when they are understanding and refining their needs, deciding what solutions or products can address that need, and doing research on a purchase, support, and a wide variety of related information that will add up to the total experience.

On one project I was involved with we interviewed over 100 customers to walk us through what their job was (not how they interacted with our brand). We discovered most of them went through around 35 process steps between identifying a need and resolving that need. We as a company were directly involved in just eight of those steps. We knew a lot about those eight steps — we had all the analytics — but we knew nothing about the other 27.

Once we understood what the customer was looking to achieve in the instances they were not interacting with us, we were able to provide valuable content to speed up the process. We also redesigned aspects of the digital experience with our brand to ensure we were asking for the right information at the right time to smooth interactions and make the overall experience as frictionless as possible.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what delivering a successful digital experience is all about: making it easy for the customer to solve a problem, or fulfill a need?

 

 

Your DX Testing Isn’t Done Till it Passes the ‘Buddy’ Test

Buddy

“Do you think our customers will like the image of the kitten better than the one of the puppy?”

If you think digital experience testing comes down to resolving questions like this, you are missing the bigger picture.  I written before about how we should be designing for a frictionless experience, and testing is a large part of that process.

Testing Means More Than Click Troughs

Test to make sure that your content — text, graphics, video, audio — help drive the overall experience. It doesn’t matter if the kitten gets more hits than the puppy if neither helps the customer progress through the experience to get the information they need. Look at click-through rates and subsequent customer actions.

Check to make sure the graphics are composed and positioned to help the customer on their journey. For instance, shots that guide people’s eyes in the direction of the next call to action generate far more click-throughs than thoughtfully posed shots of smiling models looking straight out of the page.

Refining the digital experience focuses on the user interface as well as content design, but you also need to make sure you understand how they work together.

Test to make sure the page layouts, paths, text and graphics are market and culturally appropriate. Does the experience change based on the level of the customer engagement and where they are in their journey? Is the logged-in experience more personalized than the general ‘guest’ experience? It should be.

Do you have your customer journey mapped out and know which parts of the digital experience map to which steps in that journey?

How about the language you are using? Is your website, mobile app, augmented reality solution, digital signage or whatever you are using to deliver the digital experience littered with jargon, acronyms and industry terms understandable to you and your development team, but meaningless to customers?

Names are important. Think about what you call something. Don’t expect the customer to know the terms you use internally. Pick names that the customer will recognize and use them consistently.

Don’t Take it From the Insiders, Ask Your Buddy

Once you’ve done your final internal testing, and maybe even a focus group or two, I’d suggest you employ the final and best test: the “Buddy” test.

Ask your family and friends to walk through your planned experience design. Make sure whoever does the testing has no knowledge of your industry, your company processes, etc. The more removed they are from your role in designing, testing and delivering digital experiences, the better.

Ask them to do a task a new customer would want to do, like create an account and find some basic information.

It’s amazing how often designers leave out basic information from online interactions because once we become integrated into a particular environment, we get to the stage where we have an almost intuitive baseline of knowledge — knowledge someone outside of the community would not have. Answering “it’s obvious” to any question raised during testing is not acceptable.

If your other friends repeatedly ask the same question about a part of your digital process, that part of your process is broken. You need to fix it. And not in a way that makes it easier for you, but in a way that it makes it easier for the customer to complete their task.

Remember, it doesn’t matter which picture gets more clicks if I can’t find out how your products can help me, how to buy them, or even where you do business or what time someone is available for me to talk to.