Poke Your Bruises

When you hear a customer complain about your product, do you:

  • Change the subject?
  • Immediately promise that you’ll fix it?
  • Focus instead on the positive feedback and the parts of your product that they really like?
  • Think to yourself, “what a jerk”?

(Oh, come on, we’ve all thought that sometimes.)

But seriously, we tend to do the first 3 because they minimize cognitive dissonance: that uncomfortable feeling we get when our brains try to wrap themselves around two contradictory ideas. (in this case: “I’m a good product manager and I built a good product” vs. “The customer is unhappy with my product is it such a good product?”)

Instead, we should be poking our bruises.

When you hear a customer complain, learn to take that uncomfortable feeling and prolong it. Get more detail, get examples — and then go look for more people and prompt them to see if they have the same problem.

On the face of it, this sounds like an incredibly stupid idea. Why on earth would we want customers to dwell on the negative aspects of our product? Why would we go looking for trouble?

But the truth is that people like to vent. It’s cathartic. Your customers are going to experience frustrations with your product whether you bring it up or not — and better that they are able to unload their frustrations and feel like you are really taking the time to listen to them. So even if your customer spends 15 minutes of a 20-minute call complaining, she’s not going to hang up the phone and wonder why she doesn’t cancel her account — she’s going to feel unburdened, and also feel like you’re doing the best you can and invested in working towards making her life better.

So here’s what you do when you’re looking down at that big purple bruise of customer complaint:

  • Get the context: “That does sound frustrating. Could you describe when / under what circumstances that’s happening?” Poke.
  • Get the pain: “Could you give me some more detail about how that’s inconveniencing you?” Poke.

and take it 2 steps farther:

  • Write it down: Describe the customer problem. Use their exact quotes. Quantify wherever possible (“searching took 90 seconds”“we have to try 4 times on average to get it right”).
  • Go looking for more trouble: Pick out 5-8 other customers — some similar to the original complainer, some different — and say to them, “Another customer mentioned that he was having some frustrations with…” and then trail off and listen.

Here’s the trick about that last part: by bringing up another customer, you give permission to complain. You’re signaling that whatever they say, you already know about it and they won’t be the lone nutcase. So if they agree, they’ll feel comfortable enough to pile on: “Me too! We get so frustrated when…” (or, if they disagree, they can say so because they don’t have any connection to that anonymous another customer guy)

This is painful. It’s also tremendously useful, because by the time the 3rd or 4th customer has chimed in, you’ve identified the patterns and maybe even a solution that isn’t as bad as you’d originally feared.