The Role of the Persona is Shifting

I have been a proponent of using Personas to assist in the design of digital interfaces since 2003. I still believe in them, but I think their role has shifted and has perhaps become a bit diminished. Personas are user archetypes, models of groups of users that help define features, requirements and messaging choices. They are invaluable. If you develop digital interfaces and you don’t use Personas, you are seriously behind most everyone.

The Persona’s rival has taken the stage and it’s the real customer. Voice of the customer tools have improved over the last few years and companies pay more attention to what customers say thanks to the rise of social media. Everyday I sit at the breakfast table and read yesterday’s voice of the customer stream that was written by customers directly on our web site. It’s sent to me via email unfiltered, except for blocking out any characters that appear to be account numbers or personal information. Then I navigate to our Facebook brand page and read that, then over to our Twitter stream and read that.

We have done a lot to shape and enrich our Personas over the years, by enhancing their stories and adding other attributes in an attempt to bring them to life and therefore more approachable for business partners. But still they are cardboard cutouts. It’s much more powerful to read words from your customer or see someone’s Avatar adjacent to their feedback.

Reading customer comments evokes a roller coaster of emotions. One comment is glowing with praise that brings a smile to my face and a sense of pride. The next one calls out something that is just, well, stupid of us. We take all these comments seriously, logging them, and then trying to evaluate where in the priority fix queue they should fall. It’s a real time customer focus group and it’s beginning to influence how I design and shape project work almost as much as Personas have done in the past.

Curious if others are having the same experience or have other opinions.

Images from Avizor and Meetin’Bytes

Performance Management Time

If you work in corporate America then right about now it’s Performance Management time. As a manager I spend quite a bit of time talking with my team members, taking detailed notes throughout the year and then reading their self evaluations. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful staff that works smart and gets lots done, which means I look forward to this time of year. It gives me a chance to communicate up to senior management the talent and accomplishments on an individual basis.

I’ve been a manager of people since 1979, when my mentor put me in charge of a retail bookstore. I had seven employees to begin. Then it grew to three stores with 27 employees, followed by eighteen stores and a General Manager title with nearly 175 employees as my responsibility. Man was I in over my head. My mentor knew I could handle it. I made lots of mistakes, but learned so much.

Less Than Model Employees

One year we had a large shrink (retail term for losses, like shoplifting or fraud) in a big volume store. I had to hire a firm to give polygraph tests to the employees. It’s sobering to read the confessions people make when under that kind of stress. Everybody took something along the way. Certain people left and guess what; problem solved.

There was another store in Chicago, with even bigger losses. I drove by the store completely by chance late one night and saw the lights on. The manager was recreating an entire day’s transactions one at a time on the registers. He would stop several hundred dollars short of the actual day’s receipts, replace the real ones with the fake tapes and pocket the difference. That is of course the extreme case.

Most of the time I have had the great fortune to work with first class individuals. I can’t stress enough how critical it is to spend the time and energy in preparation for an energetic and meaningful performance discussion. This is not a time to short change effort or communication. It’s absolutely critical you don’t end up in a Dilbert cartoon.

My Approach to Performance Management

  • Refer to those copious notes you’ve taken throughout the year. If you’ve done a good job you will be doing a lot of cut and paste.
  • Focus on the positives and strengths. If you dwell on challenges you will actually suffocate motivation.
  • Be thorough when cataloging accomplishments. What someone did in January can be just as important as what was done in October.
  • Use clear examples to make it real.
  • Always solicit peer feedback but don’t put it in the review. Read the good ones aloud. Yes I love the drama.
  • Nothing should be a surprise unless it’s good.
  • Don’t over think or over write.
  • Now is the time to leverage that team exercise you mandated during the year that further reveals who your team members really are. Use that as another lens to refine leadership evaluation.
  • Be sure you close by asking for feedback on yourself. What specifically you can do to help.

I’m not a performance management expert or consultant. You can find wonderful frameworks and much more talented people in lots of places. But if you manage people then you are a professional manager and your staff relies on you to act like one.

High Performance Attributes

Since I gave ink to the less than stellar employees, here is a list I’ve compiled over the years that I believe exemplifies a high performance employee. In no particular order.

  • Leadership / Inspirational
  • Analytical Ability
  • Strategic Thinker
  • Partnering Skills
  • Management Insight
  • Thought Leader, Not Status Quo
  • Exceeds in Delivering Business Results
  • Effective Communicator
  • Innovative
  • Curious / Inquisitive
  • Catalyst
  • High Energy / Highly Motivated
  • Aspirational
  • Problem Solver
  • Change Agent
  • Comfortable with Ambiguity
  • Knowledgeable / Recognized Expert
  • Understanding – Active Listener – Bridging – Negotiate

Take it serious and spend the time. Your staff will repay you beyond your imagination.

Improving the Customer Experience Begins with Active Listening

This is an expanded version of a presentation I gave at the Customer Experience Summit on May 13, 2009 at The Art Institute of Chicago. The event was hosted by TeaLeaf and OpinionLab.

Feedback, Voice of the Customer, whatever you want to call it is not new. It was born with that first comment or letter to Customer Service, store manager or the President of the company expressing outrage or praise over a recent experience. Today most large firms have formal processes in place for collecting feedback across numerous channels. Collecting information is easy, organizing it is harder and making changes based on feedback sometimes requires Congress to act. We are seeing Voice of the customer getting more attention these days for a number of reasons.

  • Increasing use of the Internet by consumers
  • Renewed focus on digital marketing in this economic downturn
  • Explosive growth of social networking

As someone responsible for the online customer experience of a large site, I am very interested in customer feedback. We get bits of it through usability testing prior to launching features and functionality, but those events are spaced out over the course of the year and part of a specific feature of function of the site. It’s critical to monitor what customers are saying about their experience on your site on a more regular basis, like daily.

If it’s your site on the screen this young woman is confused about on her laptop then you very much need to know what she’s thinking.

Is this your site on this laptop?
Is your site on this laptop?

Your Customer is talking, so listen

You should be collecting customer voices from multiple channels across the company. This feedback falls in one of two classes:

  • Internal Voices
    • Ratings and comments submitted on the site
    • Inbound e-mails
    • Call center discussions
    • Mail / executive letters
    • Surveys / research
  • External Voices
    • Blogs
    • Video sharing networks
    • Twitter streams
    • Media sites

Within all that feedback are rich clues you can mine to improve the customer experience. But if you are a large company this will mean an overwhelming amount of data and pose collection and processing challenges. You must leverage technology to help you make sense of all this feedback and weed out the noise. There are dozens of firms that can help with this. Which one you choose will depend on your objectives.

Practice Active Listening

We’ve all heard about active listening through a psychology class, team building exercise or during one of those individual development discussions you’ve had with your manager. It’s half of effective communication. The SIER hierarchy of Active Listening was developed in the mid 1980’s by communications researchers Steil, Watson & Barker. They were responding to data that told them humans immediately forget 50% of what their are told and an additional 25% after two days.

SIER Hierarchiery of Active Listening
SIER hierarchy of Active Listening

By practicing active listening on your customer feedback you will be taking important first steps to improving your customer experience. I’m thinking about going so far as to changing the term customer feedback to active listening for my team. Here are techniques we use:

  • Collect Voice of the Customer on
    • Most visited pages
    • Highest business value pages
    • Most complex interactions
    • Customer service sections
    • Sensitive areas (pricing, policy, etc.)
  • Track and compare site sub-sections
    • Aggregate scores can be a false friend
  • Look for commonality in feedback across channels
  • Categorize feedback and link directly to a measured business value
  • Take action on changes you can make within your role
  • Recommend enhancements your partners can champion

This establishes a series of filters and brings into focus the most meaningful customer feedback. By meaningful I mean important to the customer and valuable to the business. You must demonstrate an intersection of customer feedback and business value. Without that no one will take you seriously and you will end up frustrated. But that’s only the beginning. From there you need to create a process that works in your organization with an end goal of actually making changes to your site, or marketing practices, even policy. Here is a simple, but very effective model.


You must speak your business partner’s language and invite them into the customer circle. By speaking their language I mean connecting customer feedback to what matters to your partner including the associated business value. If you run your web site you should know exactly how much money you save or revenue you create (or both) with each and every log in. Customer comments are easily rationalized away and marginalized without this monetary value attached to it. The The steps in the process are:

  • Collect: Leverage technology, automate communications and practice active listening
  • Connect: Link feedback to the customer experience (moments of truth) and monetize
  • Inform: Convene regular cross-functional meetings, report findings and make recommendations
  • Act: Translate recommendations into projects with associated business value

It will be tough going at first, which is why you need a process that ties back to business value. Once you make changes you will need to collect the feedback to demonstrate progress, again with business value attached. That reporting coupled with the tracked business results will take you places you never thought you could go. Your customers will thank you and you will be rewarded by the business.

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