What’s the State of Your Customer “Union?”

Uncovering customer stories is your secret presidential power.

February 5 marks the 45th U.S. president’s State of the Union address.  Even though this bombastic politician is known for his childish theatrics, I doubt his speech will be as memorable as the one featuring Mr. Lenny Skutnik.

When he saw the woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, Skutnik dove into the icy Potomac waters and rescued her from certain death. His heroism earned him a VIP seat at President Reagan’s January 1982 State of the Union address. The Coast Guard awarded him the Gold Lifesaving Medal. He also earned other prestigious tributes

Lenny Skutnik at President Ronald Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union Address

Reagan’s preamble began:

“…In the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest: the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters…and we saw the heroism of…Lenny Skutnik.”

This marked a new and engaging way to deliver State of the Union addresses. Reagan wove humanity and relatability into his sober messages and policy guidance.

How do you deliver the state of your customer “union” to your stakeholders? Do you plaster your presentations with spreadsheets and pie charts, or do you celebrate your Lenny Skutniks?

You’d be amazed at the anemic percentage of time most marketing leaders spend actually interviewing their customers—and celebrating them! These are the beneficiaries of their messaging and offerings, yet they often leave the important conversations to others. They rely on impersonal account-based marketing programs, online surveys, and second-hand data from salespeople.

How unpatriotic.

Thankfully, there’s a better way. And it’s much more inspiring and insightful.

Consider giving your marketing teams a quarterly homework assignment. Ask them to interview actual customers.

But first, be sure they have the right setting and mindset to discover hidden gems.

After spending 18 years interviewing hundreds of senior executives and customers, I have learned some proven techniques that prepare you to discover your strengths. Here are some interviewer guidelines that have worked well for me—and my clients:

  1. Identify 8-10 valued business partners and customers to interview.   They should fall into one of three categories:  customers with whom you have a long track record, customers you recently lost, and some who are almost ready to do business with you.  Feel free to include strategic allies and partners.  Be sure all three categories are included and interviewed.
  2. Ask your Founder or CEO (if that isn’t you) to personally call these contacts and request their candid input. Give them the name of the interviewer, then ask them to if they would be willing to schedule a call with the interviewer.  Typically, a 30-minute phone appointment will suffice. 
  3. Do not conduct online surveys in lieu of live or phone interviews. You will NOT get the quality of information you need.
  4. Before you begin the interview,
    • Pause and step away from your screen for 15 seconds.
    • Clarify your intention for the interview. You can either state it to yourself, tell the person you are interviewing, or both. Here’s an example: “My intention is to learn more about your experiences with our company so that we can improve, and others can benefit from your experiences.”
    • Check your posture. It affects your emotions and your image. UCLA studies indicate that our physical state emanates more emotion than our language!
    • Take three deep breaths. Count to six on the inhale and exhale. This will improve your energy levels, allow for various vocal tones and speeds, and calm your mood.
    • Avoid up-speak—never end a sentence with your voice tone going up an octave. This makes you sound as if you are always asking a question. This habit removes your power and impact!
  5. Thank the interviewee for their time. Be sincere about it.
  6. Remind them that you want to discover what your organization does well. You value their input on how THEY think you can expand on that. 
  7. Remind them this information is 100% anonymous, and it will not be attributed back to the source.
  8. Take notes.
  9. Avoid giving advice or providing your opinions during the interview!
  10. Follow these basic journalism questions to show curiosity:
    • Use who, what, when, where or how
    • “How much?”
    • “How often?”
    • “Who else was involved?”
    • “What did you do to make that happen?”
    • “What helped you achieve that?”
    • Refrain from asking “Why” questions. This puts people on the defensive.
  11. Avoid offering to brainstorm. It could be thinly disguised advising. Stay curious!
  12. Do not nod your head or agree with what they are saying. Stay neutral.
  13. Periodically, you can calmly interrupt and summarize what you heard. (e.g. “you mentioned these three points…did I get those right?”)
  14. Here are some “red alert” statements that will reduce trust and empathy:
  • Oh, that’s awesome. (may be too informal)
  • You should/ought to…
  • I think…
  • That won’t work.
  • We cannot do that…you cannot do that.
  • Let me tell you…
  • Listen!

To be perfectly honest (since I have been lying to you up to this point?)

Well, if you want MY opinion! (they don’t)

  1. Allocate 10 minutes at the conclusion of the interview to review your notes. Write down the most common themes and words that you discovered during the conversation.
  2. Send the interviewee a written thank you note or email within 24 hours of the appointment. Show your sincere appreciation for their honesty and time.

You may not be preparing to speak to 300 million Americans, but you are preparing for something of presidential proportions.

Comments open: True

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