thinking like a customer

thinking like a customer

Getting Customers to Trust You

By on December 9, 2009

Developing customers' trust can be elusive. We all talk about it, but few organizations have a plan that anyone--executives or other employees--really understand. A solid plan consists of specific practices for viewing performance through the lens of the customer and a leadership that inspires employees to relate to those customers.

It's very similar to public speaking. Recall the "bad" presentations you've heard in your life. The speakers were probably talking at you rather than with you. They were not concerned with you, but with furthering their agendas and giving you the facts as they perceived them, in a way that favored their interests. The speech becomes a chore for the audience, not a positive, memorable experience.
Trust CranesBuilding customer trust, on the other hand, parallels the characteristics of a dynamic speaker. It starts with delivering a message on an equal-to-equal basis, leading to energizing conversations and discovery of exciting new possibilities. It's a dialogue that goes beyond "telling" the customer (audience) about your story and expecting them to buy in. It's about anticipating what will help them and then delivering that solution. Stephen Denning, the guru of storytelling in business settings, writes in The Secret Language of Leadership that success results in "people (who) are able to see possibilities that were hitherto invisible to them." It enlists listeners in the task of "re-imagining and re-creating the future."

As Kenneth Paul Kramer explains in Martin Buber's I and Thou: Practicing Living Dialogue, what develops is a harmonious and compelling relationship. Customers (or the audience) cease to be an "It" and become a "You." It's a matter of getting to understand their story. Otherwise, there is danger of entropy, or the loss of information in the message you're sending. Just as speakers need to relate to their listeners, leaders need to connect with their customers, rather than to see them as opponents or obstacles. Organizations will perform better when they understand what being in the customers' world is like.

All great speakers create a better outcome for their audiences. They create an example whose "eyes" we can see through. As Denning writes, "It's not party tricks or superficial techniques; it's a different way of thinking, which creates a collective energy." It transforms our work from a job, such as bricklaying, to a practice or calling, such as architecture.

"It entails enabling the audience to recognize a new, different, and more promising story that they could be living, which they, for some reason, have not visualized up till now." Jeff Immelt, for example, when he told his employees that GE was going to put "imagination to work" had the customer in mind. But this vision of the future requires what Denning calls a "narrative intelligence"--the ability to anticipate the dynamic factors that determine how customers (or the audience) will react to the ideas and changes you are designing for them.

Customer trust doesn't just happen. It has to be designed and cultivated. The formula for all successful speakers is to know their audiences and to adapt to their needs. They are then able to deliver the story in a meaningful way. It's a great lesson for an organization to learn on its journey to becoming customer-centered.

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