You Don’t Hear Your Customers

January 10, 2012  

The other day, I asked my business manager to follow up with a client about an unpaid invoice.  She contacted the company’s accounts payable department and was told that the invoice was paid on June 1st, 2012. (italics added for emphasis)

OK, I have some pretty talented clients, but I don’t think any have mastered time travel…yet.  It is only the first week in January.  There is no way they could have paid (past tense) an invoice 6 months in the future.

So obviously my client miscommunicated.  Or did they?

What my client actually wrote was that the “invoice was paid 6/1/12.”  To my American business manager, this was clearly June 1st.  But to my European colleagues, they would interpret this as January 6th.  In the US, our date format is mm/dd/yy; in Europe it is dd/mm/yy.

Although this is a very simplistic example, it clearly demonstrates how biases – cultural, language, experience, etc – significantly impact how we perceive the world around us.  And most people are unaware of the fact that they do not truly see things to same way as they occur to others.

In the world of innovation, this can have an impact on how we understand customer needs.

We think we know what they want.  But what they are saying is always interpreted differently than what they really mean.

I like the story told by Professor Chris Parker of the University of Lucerne about a tribesman from a remote part of Malaysia who was taken to Singapore for the weekend as part of an anthropological study. It was his first exposure to the outside world. After a tour of the bustling city, his guides asked him what had struck him most about this place, one of the great high-tech centers of the world. The tribesman said without hesitation that the biggest surprise was a wheelbarrow that he had noticed being used to haul a large quantity of bananas, more bananas being hauled by one conveyance than he had ever seen before.

All the computers and all the mobile phones on the technology-mad island meant nothing to him. He was most impressed by nothing more sophisticated than the big wheelbarrow because in his world, what mattered still focus on basic gathering and distribution of food and water. The digital world has yet to have any bearing on their lives. The technology of choice for this tribe would be a consignment of new wheelbarrows. Of course, in the context of business, technology is more sophisticated than the wheelbarrow, but no more important to its success.

How you see the world is different than how others will see it.

It reminds me of a scene from the movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”  A Coke bottle is interpreted many different ways by those unfamiliar with glass.  To most of the world, it is obviously a Coke bottle.  But if you have not seen one before, it means something entirely different.

Assume you don’t understand what your customers really want.  Poke.  Probe.  Ask clarifying questions. Have them tell you stories that help elaborate.  Ask “why” they want a particular feature.  Look for alternative perspectives and meanings.

Maybe your customers really only want a bigger wheelbarrow.

P.S. This technique applies to family members and friends.  Don’t assume you know what your spouse or kids are saying.  Odds are, you are not really understanding them.

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