5 ways to generate customer insights

On Friday, May 22nd 2015 I spoke at UserConf London, and I'm sharing here an edited version of that talk. 

Let's talk about Matt Damon

Do you know what movie this is?  It's Good Will Hunting, of course. That's Matt Damon and he hangs out with his friend Ben Affleck.  He is a janitor at MIT, and he's doing by all accounts a perfectly good job.


Matt Damon turns out to be a maths genius who is wasting his life until beardy Robin Williams fixes him, then he fights Ben Affleck, then everybody cries and he heads off to live with Minnie Driver.

Customer service teams are very often treated like the web application janitors. We send them in to clean up the messes other people have made, to tidy things up and get our customers back on track. And that's an important job that absolutely needs to be done.

But Matt Damon was wasted when he was just mopping. And making customer service your company janitors is a huge waste of potential because they can and should be doing so much more for you.

What do I mean by "do more"? I mean this:

Your company has products or services, and, hopefully, customers who use them. And you have customer service people who talk to those customers. They can tell you things you would *never* know, no matter how many customer surveys you run.

Have you ever felt like you knew enough about your customers, their interaction with your service, how they think, where they come from, what language they use to talk about your service...of course not. And nobody, not even the customers themselves, have as much access to that sort of information.

But they (and maybe you) are also super busy dealing with that endless, unstoppable queue of support tickets and chats and calls, so the information doesn't always make it to the people who can really use it.

So how can you get at that knowledge? I've got 5 ideas you could start implementing today in your business.

When I was answering tickets all day, every day, my boss would sometimes ask me for information like "how many people ask about clicking through on the reporting page?" And of course with no preparation in advance the only thing I could remember in any detail was whatever ticket I did last, plus that one guy who emails. every. single. day.

You know how you buy a new car thinking "wow, you don't see many of them" and as soon as you have one, every second car is a Subaru Outback?

It's like that - once you tell your support team what to look for, they'll spot it way more often. So tell your support team what questions you'd like to answer and they'll do a much better job of finding and sharing that information. 

A couple of practical actions:

  • Involve your support team in your product roadmap so they know what's coming up, and what you are interested in.
  • Be specific, not vague - ask "how many people want to see click through reporting", not "what sort of things do people say about reports".
  • Let your support team sit in on product planning meetings so they can understand the philosophical decisions and context.

 Fallout is such a good game. PipBoy! Anyway, you have to help your team level up in customer insights because being awesome at support does not necessarily make you awesome at extracting insights.

Do you have your product or marketing teams doing user interviews? Let some support people sit in, or record them for support people to view.

If you find a great example of a conversation that resulted in some useful information, share that. Support team will love to have that reinforced and to borrow some language and approaches.

The side benefit is that your customers love to be asked for help - they'll engage more deeply and be more willing to forgive problems. That's what professional business people call a win-win, you probably haven't heard of it.

Once your team start collecting information, they'll need somewhere to put it, and tools to present the information in a useful way.

At Campaign Monitor our engineers use JIRA to record all their tasks and bugs and the like, and they wanted us to record feature requests and customer insights in there too. JIRA is great for developers but for me and my support team it's a bit like someone fire a shotgun full of form fields at the screen.

So we built a much simpler front end to JIRA that we call Suggestion Tracker and everyone uses that to add in feature requests and customer stories and bug instances. It had a clear effect on the volume and quality of information we were recording.

Just recently in my team we reconfigured our help desk software to have many fewer, but more tightly controlled categories and labels.

Now it's way easier for us to sort and categorise our conversations, and we can answer questions from the product teams about customers and how they use the product.

We can't just send people off to Mars, no matter how good the training and tools are - the environment would kill them. And you can't just tell customer service people to start collecting and processing information without changing your organisation to support that

We need to terraform our organisations so they can support and nurture the behaviour we want to see. Support teams are usually so busy and agents are incentivised to move faster and end conversations quickly.

If you want them to take more time and dig in more deeply, and think about how to categorise and share the information they find, you need to change the environment.

How do you do that? Make sure they have enough slack time in their days to be comfortable spending a couple more minutes with a customer.

Consider your metrics; if you only report on time to close, then that's what your team will work on above anything else. In my team we also report on number of suggestions recorded.

Allocating roles is another option; we have different support people who are assigned as our contact point between support and different areas of upcoming product work, so that they can be more deeply informed and understand the context and overall goals. Then they can feed that back to the support team.

And one more critical element in creating the environment. Use the information provided to you. If you encourage your support team to collect this information and spend time understanding it and sharing it, and then you just do nothing with it....it's not going to happen for much longer.

So don't do this unless you really intend to use the results.

Your customer service team do have access to tons of really valuable information, and you can empower them to extract those insights and use them.

But this isn't a one-and-done project. Years ago I had this all working for my team but then the company grew and the processes stopped working.

Then we worked up new processes and figured out our communication strategies and it all smoothed out again. And then we added 40 people and they don't have that same shared knowledge and it all broke again.

I'm not going to tell you it's easy, but it is possible and it's important if you want to really use an advantage only you can use. You just have to keep revisiting it and reimplementing it.

Your company will learn more, you'll save a bunch of time and you'll make your customer service team happier. 

Oh, and Ben Affleck is Batman now!