Ironclad Brand Strategy [logo] Ironclad Brand Strategy

How do I truly listen to customers?

Lindsay Says

The most value-creating brands are ones that solve a deep human need for the customer.

To earn your customer’s hard-earned money, you need to give them something deeply worthy of the exchange. But how?

Brand strategy articulates the promise you bring that is well worth your customers’ money. The Ironclad Method for creating a brand strategy begins with listening to the customer. (You can read more in my book, Forging an Ironclad Brand.) Step 2 of 8, “Listen,” taps you directly into your customer’s mindset so that you can discern your most potent promise to her.

Experience the Magic of Customer Interviews

Some leaders have the resources and desire to outsource the Listen step to a market research partner, and there are advantages to working with a professional for this. But there is magic that happens to the person doing the customer interviewing. So even if you’re outsourcing most of the work, don’t deny yourself that magic. Do some of the customer interviewing yourself.

Here are some tips to get the most out of the Listen step of the Ironclad Method

1. Get into the “Beginner’s Mind”

Before talking to a customer – whether it’s in person or by phone or video – take a moment to make your mind blank, open and curious. Zen Buddhists call this the “beginner’s mind.” You’re trying to offset your own “curse of knowledge” about your offering so that you can learn something truly new. Coach yourself that you are entering this conversation to learn, to be surprised, and to develop an ability to channel your customer. You are not the expert; you are a humble beginner. Your customer is the expert.

2. Listen between the lines

The customer will not give you an eloquent, perfectly-packaged insight that you can then plop into your brand strategy. When you listen empathetically, you can listen between the lines and synthesize the insight yourself.

Inhabiting the beginner’s mind is far from passive. You are in a highly active state of listening, empathizing, investigating and synthesizing. Listen not only to what your customer says, but also to what the customer does not say. Notice not simply the words spoken, but also the spirit and tone of those words.

3. Let there be silence

After you ask a question, be quiet while your customer responds. Once your interviewee finishes responding to a question, like a good reporter, let there be silence. Zip your mouth! Make sure the person really is finished responding. Give space for elaboration. That silence is when some of the most revealing insights emerge.

As Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”

4. Prepare a discussion guide with your questions

Prior to your customer interview, develop questions with an arc from general to specific. Start at a high altitude, with questions to uncover what they value, what their life is like, what keeps them up at night. Then move to a middle altitude, with questions to learn how they relate to your category, what they think and feel about the problem your offering solves. And lastly – LASTLY! – ask them how they feel about your offering and brand; how it’s similar and different to their alternative options; what they love and hate about the various options; and where they are indifferent.

During the interview, follow your prepared questions as loosely or as tightly as you’d like.

Resist the temptation to jump too soon to the low-altitude questions about your product. You might get so excited to hear what the customer thinks of your offering that you neglect to learn about her first. Beware of this temptation and resist it. Understanding the context leads to the most useful insights to undergird your brand strategy.

5. Ask why.

Follow up with “why?” and then again, be quiet while she responds. Keep asking “why?” or “tell me more about that” until you feel you have grasped the root. Here is a fictional example of this probing while creating the brand strategy for United Airlines First Class Lounge.

Me: When you first learn you are scheduled for a work trip, what is your dominant feeling?

Customer: Stress.

Me: Why?

Customer: My family gets really annoyed when I travel for work.

Me: Why is that?

Customer: I’m the person who drives everyone around and makes everyone feel taken care of, so when I’m gone, everyone is stressed and a mess. I feel guilty.

Me: Tell me more.

Customer: I guess I feel I’m shirking my duty if I am gone. And my family is the most important thing to me, so that feels bad.

Me: Why do you think that is?

Customer: It makes me feel like I’m failing, and not just that, but failing the most important part of my life.

Me: Say more about that.

Customer: I’m pulled in different directions constantly and I never feel like I am doing enough in any of the areas of my life.

This customer is thinking about what she is leaving behind while she travels, surfacing guilt, feelings of nurturing, and overwhelm. This tidbit may only come up once, or you may hear elements of this emerge repeatedly during your target customer conversations. If it is indeed a pattern, that forms a highly leverageable insight that can help you position your brand in a more accurate, human way.

6. Don’t correct, inform, or teach.

Do not chime in. Do not correct or offer suggestions or advice. Don’t do it! Don’t get your dander up if your interviewee says something you know to be untrue. If your interviewee were to say she lacks access to your United Airlines First Class Lounge when you know that as a frequent flyer she is indeed granted that access, don’t correct her. She would respond by clamming up, because she would then view you as the teacher. You are the student here, so zip it and just listen.

7. Don’t be shallow.

It is not the customer’s job to give you the insight. Don’t expect to get answers you can apply carte blanche. The goal of the research is to give you clues to understand your customer. You are seeking to learn, connect dots, and integrate – not merely to record and then regurgitate. You will be the one to distil insights from these clues, and you’ll use those insights to lead, not follow.

In that United Airlines example, if you had heard multiple interviewees use the word “stress” when describing their feeling about work travel, a shallow interpretation might be that your brand needs to mitigate stress immediately before flights. That would be shallow.

When you follow up with “why,” you learn that the word “stress” was hiding the more useful clue that the stress was not about the flight – it was about their time not spent at home. Knowing this can help you empathize with them and build your brand using that deeper insight. Rather than mitigating stress at the airport, you could ideate ways to mitigate stress at home during the customer’s absence.

Never Stop Listening

Remember that the most important condition for listening is your mindset. The quality of your insights directly stems from the openness you bring to these conversations. The only really wrong thing you can do during research is to be closed to the customer’s raw experience.

And – don’t stop listening after you complete your brand strategy. Let listening become a regular practice in your business, so that you’re continually tapping into empathy for your customer.

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