Outside in, the view looks very different to inside out

OK, here’s a test for you. What do you think these things are? Spaceships? Installation art? Bollards? Spinning tops? I’ll leave you to muse on that one for a while, and throw another spinning top into the marketing ring. Here’s a question for you: what are you like to do business with? Easy? Difficult? Accommodating? Is the experience one that puts a smile on people’s faces? Are you meeting their needs? Giving them what they want? Delivering the sort of service that they’re likely to tell their friends about? And if all those questions are leaving you feeling breathless, sit back and I’ll tell you a story. A story with a point that all marketers should take to heart.

Cards on the table

Last week, I was up bright and early to catch the train to London. And from the madness of King’s Cross at rush-hour, it was but a few tube stops to the plush corridors and sound-proofed silence of a hotel near Green Park for a conference on brand protection. I was writing a report for my client ActiveStandards, who jointly organised the event with brand specialists MarkMonitor. One of the speakers was a smart cookie called Tim Loo, from the appropriately named brand company Foolproof. He delivered a fascinating talk on the brand-experience gap. That’s the difference, he explained, between the brand promise (the stuff that marketers say) and the customer experience (what it’s really like to deal with the company on a day-to-day basis). And he told one story that made me smile. And think. A banking client of his took on a new head of department. This chap opened an account with the bank, which all new joiners are expected to do – it’s the only way to get paid, so optional doesn’t even come into it. Suddenly, he saw what it was like to be a customer. And he was gobsmacked. So much so, in fact, that he asked Tim to make a film about the process, that could be shown to others in the bank. Which Tim did, by becoming a customer himself. He kept a sort of video diary documenting the whole process. The result was comedy bordering on tragedy: 10 or so letters in one week, two PIN numbers, lots of emails, conflicting and confusing advice, and a distinctly bad taste in the mouth. The film went viral within the bank, and was soon seen by the C-suite execs. Who weren’t happy. How on earth could the bank treat its customers like that? What were they thinking? Who was responsible? How could they change? Where would they start?

The view from there

You’ve got to laugh. Mostly because we’ve all been there. But hold on a moment, and wipe that smile off your face. (I’m wiping even as I write, which isn’t easy.) Are you any different? Can you put your hand on heart and say your clients love working with you? That your customers love buying from you? That they don’t feel themselves tensing up each time that they have to interact with you? That they’re not badmouthing you to their next-door neighbour, friends or – worse, a whole lot worse – their army of Twitter followers? Getting round the other side of the table, virtual or otherwise, is a salutary experience. And can be a very humbling one. Hearing what people really think about you takes an iron constitution and nerves of steel, but it’s worth it. You’ll get valuable feedback that’ll make you better, stronger and nicer to deal with. If you don’t know what people want and expect from you, then the solution is simple: ask them. But be careful what you ask them. Measuring customer satisfaction isn’t always the best guide to how you’re doing. If you ask people to rate from 1 to 5 the things that you deem to be important, you’re influencing the way they think and the parameters of their answers. They may well be happy or unhappy about something that never even crossed your mind. So a freeform approach is a must. It could be as simple as a text box in a form where you ask them to  raise issues that really matter to them. Let people set their own agenda, and tell you what’s important or not, what’s working or not. You may not like what you hear, but at least you’ll know. And it’s important that you take on board the feedback you get, and accept it at face value. Don’t try to massage it, reinterpret it, or ignore it. If people tell you what they think, that’s what they think. Why would it be otherwise?

Are you sitting comfortably?

Which brings us back to the photograph. They’re not spaceships, or installations, or tops, or bollards. They’re benches. Yes, that’s right. After a public consultation, during which local residents and business owners outlined what they needed (more parking spaces, somewhere nice to sit) the council here in Cambridge ploughed on regardless with their original plan. No parking spaces of course, which were thought to be too eco-unfriendly. And futuristic benches without arms, backs or even the remotest resemblance to a bench. Needless to say, nobody sits on them. They just walk past them, bemused and a little miffed at being ignored. But that’s not the end of the story. A rival political party got up a petition, collected signatures, and has forced the council to see sense. Plans are now under way to erect a real bench or two near these ‘benches’. There’s a lesson in there all of us. Nobody knows your clients like your clients. So ask, listen and implement. It’s as simple as that – so why make it complicated?