Take Assumptions Out of Customer Listening

Rock the mic.Len Berry of Texas A&M University first told this story twenty years old. But, it still holds a very valuable lesson. Don’t assume you know what your customers want or need without asking! Especially today when their needs are constantly changing.

The new manager of the Chicago Marriott was going over year-end budget requests and came across a $20,000 line item to upgrade the black-and-white television sets to color in the bathrooms of the rooms on the concierge level. At first glance, it seemed like a really nice enough service enhancement. But something teased at the edge of his service vision.

So, the manager started asking questions of his people, based in part on the implicit assumption that they had been listening to guests and hence would have a good handle on their preferences and requests. First, he asked the concierge level staff and the people in engineering how many requests they had received for color sets in the bathrooms on that fancy floor level. “Actually, none” was their reply, “but we thought it was a neat idea.”

Then, he asked the housekeeping staff assigned to the concierge level what they were hearing from the guests on the floor–what was the most requested item that they didn’t have. Keep in mind, this was twenty years ago. Their reply: irons and ironing boards. Guess what he authorized for purchase under that line item? And as an unexpected reward for listening, understanding, and responding, it turned out that the cost of putting in irons and ironing boards was much less than the cost of upgrading black-and-white television sets to color. It freed up housekeeping to spend time on more critical tasks.

Listening is a contact sport! It is about listening to learn, not listen to make a point, instruct, or correct. It is listening like you would at a raffle! Listening without contact–listening without dramatic connection–is like looking without seeing. Given the uniqueness of being really heard, customers remember long those who listen well.  How can you replace your shaky customer assumptions with solid customer intelligence?

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of several best-selling books. Their newest book is Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do about it. They can be reached at www.wiredanddangerous.com.

photo credit: florianplag