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

Consumers Wield New Found Power – Is it Being Abused?

Power1I have always been an advocate for listening to the voice of the customer. In the eighties I was the GM for a bookstore chain. From time to time I would receive letters from customers who had an unpleasant experience with a staff member, or felt our practices, or title selection, was not acceptable. I would answer those letters personally and would spend time with the store manager discussing how an associate could be coached to ensure a better customer experience was waiting around the corner.

On one occasion someone went so far as to write a letter to the local newspaper to complain about certain magazine titles that were on display. The paper published the letter on their opinion page. I was a businessman and those magazines sold well so I didn’t want to give up that revenue. But the community got behind this person which meant I had to find a solution that worked for consumer as well as commerce. I instructed the store to remove the magazines from the rack and put up a sign that listed the titles available and informed the customers they could be purchased by asking any clerk at checkout. We did lose some sales, but I think that was more than made up in political capital with the community for seriously listening and taking action.

While in that store a short time later I overheard customers talking about the incident and noted what we had done in response. Their reaction was very positive. I immediately went back to my office and took it a step further by adopting this policy across the chain. Certainly many people did not have an issue, but it was a public store and as such, part of my job was to create an environment that was comfortable for as many people as possible. That was how community played out in the 1980’s. You wrote letters; yes on paper with envelopes and stamps. My customers taught me an invaluable lesson early on in my career; listen to them. A side note. That year we set a sales record and crushed the competitor, Walden Books, who had a much better location in the mall.

Fast forward to the digital age

One of the first things I do every morning these days is read customer comments submitted through the web site. I read them on my Blackberry at home while eating breakfast. I want to know what my customers are saying before I get to the office. It’s a sobering, enlightening, humbling, frustrating, humorous and an interesting experience. The Customer is Always Right is the classic phrase. Perhaps a more appropriate modern take is The Customer is the Customer. No ridiculous notions here. Businesses need customers, but consumers need and desire the products and services brands offer.

Enter Social Media

It has been perceived, in my opinion, that brands have enjoyed an advantage in the relationship with a consumer. Social media has for some consumers been a way to level that playing field. All well and good, but I have been observing some interesting data over the past few months directly related to all the talk about customers controlling brands and using social media as a bully pulpit to right the wrongs that businesses foist upon them. Just click on customer threads from almost any industry and you will see it. Customers want to tell the brand when they feel they’ve been wronged. Getting in touch with company people, not just the call center reps, is difficult and time consuming. Thanks to social media technology it’s much easier to write a blog post, comment on a conversation some one else has started or upload a photo. Consumers have expectations they expect brands to meet. I’m also a customer and couldn’t agree more. But if consumers decide to go public they need to exercise the same amount of care and honesty that they expected from the brand. If you don’t want your son to turn out like Bart Simpson, don’t parent like Homer. The visual below depicts how consumers move through the expectations / perceptions cycle in the world of social media, as well as what socially aware brands are doing in this new era.


Recent observations

Much of what I read from my customers is anonymous, but sometimes they identify themselves because they are looking for help. It’s fascinating what you find when you tie back detailed customer comments to their actual business records. What consumers write in public does not always reflect what’s on the private record. It’s not surprising. Anger and emotion can frequently  overwhelm calm, fact-based thinking. Especially when there have been repeated attempts to solve the problem. This puts the brand in a difficult position. They can’t call out the customer, or argue. The best they can do is apologize for problems and take the conversation off line. My point is that if you find yourself with a new power, use it wisely. Exercise the same honesty and genuineness that you expect from your brand.

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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