New Rules for Mining Customer Intelligence
by Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson

Surveys, focus groups, printouts, graphs, stacks of paper and very soon you are working in a data dump. Best selling tomes tell us to "get to know your customers' needs" while the board room is demanding we "get lean or get lost." Yet the demands of the competitive arena to attract and retain customers are ever increasing. Suddenly you feel caught in a squeeze play and longing for simpler times.

We think the lessons from simpler times can be instructive in how we balance competitive necessity for timely customer intelligence with the corporate constraint we do it fast, good and most importantly - cheap. We found new rules for mining customer intelligence in a 1975 Peanuts comic strip. We marveled at how timely it had remained and how insightful its counsel for today's challenging business environment.

Peppermint Patty interrupted her daydreaming to ask Charlie Brown, "Do you know any good rules for living, Chuck?" And, as if he had been for days waiting for that precise question, Chuck began to lecture. "Keep the ball low, don't leave your crayons in the sun, use dental floss every day, give four weeks notice when ordering a change of address, and don't spill the shoe polish. Always knock before entering, don't let the ants get in the sugar, never volunteer to be program chairman, always get your first serve in…"

As Charlie was taking a breath to continue, Snoopy approached the two, lunch pail in his mouth. Walking away with his dog, Charlie added one last rule, "…and feed your dog whenever he's hungry."

Chuck's advice is on target for developing a method for gathering focused, effective customer intelligence. Our new rules are designed to restructure old, obsolete habits and nudge us toward new, more effective approaches. As customers' expectations and standards for excellence continually change, wisdom comes through substituting the tried and new for the tired and ineffective.

"Keep the ball low."

Successful organizations are focused organizations. Low balls (whether in tennis or baseball) are generally delivered with laser-like focus that give execution its precision and the competitor less time to react. The heyday of shotgun customer feedback is long gone; organizations cannot afford the "annual customer survey" that asks customers a gazillion soup-to-nuts questions yielding a mound of data with awesome graphs but rarely a blueprint for improving customer loyalty.

Focused customer intelligence starts with a "if you could only ask the customer one question, what would it be" mentality. Such economy is predicated on the belief that we build on what we already know, impress the customer with how well we can cut to the chase, and efficiently zero in on what truly matters. It suggests we do lots of homework before the first focus group is convened.

Remember the last survey that was supposed to be a dozen questions…but, then every department had a "you-just-got-to-ask-this" addition? Or the focus group that at the last minute was inundated by a gaggle of curious onlookers spoiling the interviewees' need for intimacy? Customer intelligence requires courageous advocacy for and persistent focus on what works for customers rather than making each department feel they are being represented.

"Always get your first serve in."

Accuracy on the first serve in tennis keeps you from having to play conservatively on the second and final serve. The first serve is your best opportunity to keep the competition guessing and off balance. So it is with customer intelligence. Today's fast paced business climate requires taking every advantage to attract and keep loyal customers. Companies don't need satisfied customers today. They need highly devoted and extremely loyal customers. Devotion takes targeted innovation predicated on timely information with high value. Borderline clairvoyance regarding customers' present and future requirements is tantamount to being able to rapidly produce and deliver those products/services that exceed their needs.

"Give four weeks notice when ordering a change of address."

Chuck's message is this: always use a realistic planning horizon to get things done. Planning customer intelligence includes things like: Which customers should we talk to? How will we best communicate? Do we have all the needed customer contact information accessible? Who needs to know we are undertaking this effort and what do we tell them? What follow up communication will be required?

Realistic planning also includes less obvious curve balls like: Will there be a language/cultural issue in data collecting? How will the customer's customers and employees be impacted by this effort? What are the unexpected mines that we might encounter? How will customers know we are both sincere and serious? What's the worst thing (and best thing) that might happen from this endeavor? What do we do if we "give a party and nobody comes?"

Failure to follow Charlie's rule about using an appropriate planning horizon can lead you to shortcut the process, adversely impacting the results of your feedback efforts and embarrassing your company in front of customers and employees. Plus, failure to do appropriate planning may bring today's worst consequence - it will cost you more!

"Always knock before entering."

Only fans and foes care about setting you straight. The big crowd that falls between the far ends of the continuum needs your special enticements to share their suggestions and assessments. It means careful attention be given to how you encourage honesty from a population uninterested in "telling it like it is." The dollar bill attached to the survey may seem to them like a guilt-tactic. The discount coupon for your thoughts could border on bribery. These strategies may unearth an unenthusiastic but compliant customer. Compliance may get at the superficial facts that informs, but not the "straight-from-the-gut" frankness that instructs.

Think about the pursuit of customer candor as similar to getting your fifteen-year old child to open up. Most responsible parents want their child to be honest all the time (not just under duress) about the key events and feelings in his or her life. Bribes, guilt trips and what's-good-for-you sermons might induce them to talk, but are not likely to influence them to volunteer. To get trust, you must show trust; to get honesty you must be conspicuously honest.

"Knocking before you enter" implies showing extreme respect for customers. Respectful behavior would never include high pressure, cute tricks, or dinnertime phone calls. It includes surveys that read like a conversation with a friend, not a research project from a grad student. Respectful behavior includes valuing the customers' input enough to let them see what impact their input had on performance.

"Don't spill the shoe polish."

Shoe polish typically gets spilled because the user is so enamored with the shine emerging from the shoe that attention is taken off the bottle of shoe polish. Customer intelligence can occur in a similar way. Data collectors can fall in love with their reports and statistical wizardry. They can get so enthralled with what they know that they forget it is history the second it is put in a report. Customer intelligence is not like the shine on the shoe on the shelf; it is like the shine on the shoe on your feet - it changes.

The customer's concept of value also perpetually changes. Every service experience the customer has alters their expectations for future service. Customers today want every service experience to be FedEx fast, easy, Disney friendly and Southwest Airlines thrifty. It means customer intelligence is gained through a never-ending and perpetual search, utilizing a myriad of methodologies and collection points not through an occasional check.

Wise organizations look for countless ways to gain intelligence about their customers. First on their list of data collection resources are the customer contact ambassadors who daily encounter customers up close and personal. Such organizations make the front line associates valued listening posts by getting their input, respecting their knowledge and seeking their counsel. These organizations view customer intelligence as a dynamic process not a sometime event.

"Don't let the ants get in the sugar."

We all have had the experience of having a wonderful outdoor occasion ruined by ants getting into something they shouldn't. The effectiveness of a customer intelligence effort can be spoiled by certain individuals inappropriately getting into the process. First among the ants are consultants who act like laboring ants collecting customer feedback with little involvement on the part of the organization. Organizations with no skin in the game have very little commitment to act on what they learn.

There are also consultants who function like the queen ant - giving expert advice rather than facilitating client discovery, telling rather than supporting. While expertise can be a boon to corporate learning, it is for naught if it fosters dependence on the consultant. Again, organizations that delegate customer intelligence work soon lack the allegiance to the effort and turn their attention to other, more pressing issues. And, there will always be "other, more pressing issues" ready to take over your "to do" list.

Ants can also be senior executives of the company getting involved in the technical details of the customer feedback effort typically either derailing the effort or slowing the progress to a standstill while all viewpoints are considered.

"Never volunteer to be program chairman."

Great service companies know that treating the customer like a partner is far more conducive to devotion than treating them like a consumer. Before launching products or implementing service, they seek customers' participation. Courtyard by Marriott was built around what business travelers said was important in a hotel. The Harley-Davidson cult-like following is not about a bike but about a shared experience. BMW lets new Mini Cooper owners who paid a deposit go on line and watch their auto (#3257B) being built. Customers care when they share.

Companies committed to providing world-class service know customers want and expect to actively help them solve service problems. These companies seize every opportunity to mine for gold with their customers in terms of developing an in-depth understanding of how their customers think, why their customers use certain products and services, and how their customers value those products and services. Those who take a very active role also have learned to probe deeply into what customers would value in new innovations and services most critical to their customers' businesses.

The only way to accurately understand these issues is to proactively listen to your customers. Proactive listening is not sending out the typical customer satisfaction survey based on a recent purchase or sending it out annually on a programmed time frame. Rather it is face-to-face, ear-to-ear conversations with customers on a regular basis. Companies who make a commitment to actively engage their customers in providing feedback constantly look for ways to talk with and listen to their customers.

"Don't leave your crayons in the sun."

With a few exceptions (like airlines and maternity wards), customers would rather do business with organizations that demonstrate progress and improvement even with a few hiccups, than one that stayed the same and never made mistakes. Customer intelligence is a tool, not just for getting things repaired, but for getting things improved. With improvement and enhancement typically comes failure. And, smart organizations are those anxious to get real time, rapid customer feedback as a tool to guide the implementation of the "new and improved."

Take a look at all the time-sensitive customer learning methods employed by your organizations. Focus groups take time to plan and organize, surveys take time to plan and implement. But, front line intelligence gathering happens every minute your organization is open for business. Creating listening posts out of the frontline is crucial to timely feedback that drives timely adjustment.

Making the front-line a valued listening post takes far more than asking the call center employees to "let us know if you hear anything you think we should know." It entails training employees on what to listen for. It includes providing a simple and rewarding means for their learnings to be shared. But, most of all it encompasses making their learning efforts valued and including them in the process of improvement. To embellish on Confucius' famous line, "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand…and, thus I see and hear more."

"Feed your dog when he's hungry."

Timing is of the essence when it comes to customer intelligence. Too often when we ask is based on "how long it has been since we asked." A major software company made a significant change in the way its product was packaged and delivered. When the sales department approached the market research department about getting a reading on how customers were reacting, the calendar-driven response was, "we don't have another round of focus groups scheduled for two more quarters."

Timing also relates to the management of the intelligence within the organization once it has been gathered from customers. Organizations that place inordinate emphasis on only distributing data to the masses that has been analyzed, categorized and sanitized risks denying the frontline the capacity for a timely response. Feeding employees with timely, yet unrefined information from customers signals to them that they are mature enough to sort out what is relevant and not. We all trust communication that comes to us authentically--that is, without posturing.

Timing also relates to what and when the customer experiences what is done with the customer intelligence that has been gathered. Customers who fail to see any comeback from their candor generally conclude it is not valued by the recipient. This does not imply we always do what customers request. It does mean we always take actions that insure customers feel heard and valued.

Charlie Brown's 'rules for living' can be valuable tools for planning and executing the gathering of customer intelligence. But, the "Peanuts" comic strip had two final frames. "Will these rules give me a better life, Chuck?" Peppermint Patty asks as he exits the strip to feed Snoopy. Charlie's closing line gives hope to us all: "A better life...and a fat dog!"

Chip R. Bell is a senior partner with Performance Research Associates and manages their Dallas office. He is the author of several best-selling books. His newest book is Magnetic Service: Secrets for Creating Passionately Devoted Customers. Visit for additional information.

John R. Patterson is president of Atlanta based Progressive Insights, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations around the world effectively manage complex culture change built around employee and customer loyalty. Visit for additional information.

Quotes and cartoons from Peanuts by Charles Schulz.
Reprinted by permission of UFS, Inc.

Many more articles in Customer Service in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson. All rights reserved.

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