Probing the customer’s experience – practicing the art of “story listening”

April 13, 2010

The first step for your product development team in designing a winning customer experience is to uncover the unpleasant and unacceptable experiences that customers are having today that they’d like you to help them get rid of (i.e. those customer pain points your sales folks talk about) and to discover the experiences customers don’t have that they’d love you to deliver (i.e. the delighters that would make your products jump off the shelf). But how do you do that? We’ve found the key is to have your customers share stories about their experiences, i.e. to tell you the story of what they live through as they go about living their life or doing their job.

Now “storytelling” as an art and a business tool is widely practiced and extensively written about. You get more than 10 million hits when you Google the word – e.g. theStorytellers is an interesting site that came up in the search. And you can find almost 2000 books with the word  “storytelling” in their title. (And if you are interested in the business application of storytelling one of the best books to read is Stephen Henning’s The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative.) 

But the flip side of the art of storytelling,  i.e. “story listening”,  is much less explored – there are no books listed on Amazon with the term in the title and you get only about 100 thousand hits when you Google the term. Yet that is where the magic occurs in product development. Why? Because it is your ability to “listen” to the customer’s story – i.e. not your ability to “tell” your own – that is the key to getting your customer to open up about what they are experiencing.

As an example here is a “short story” from a pediatric nurse about how challenging  it can be when you are trying to give a vaccination to a child that is scared of the needle. This story was shared with us at PDC by Erika Bajars, US Marketing Director at PDC client Becton-Dickinson Medical, who led a team tasked with figuring out how to grow the pediatric segment of BD’s medication delivery business. To do so, Bajars worked with a cross-functional team to, as she describes it, “paint a picture of what it’s like to be our customer today.”

“We had a kid that was here a few weeks ago for a shot…Four different staff members & mom were trying to hold him down. Ripped a plastic chart rack right off the wall… It was ridiculous how much impact he had on this department that afternoon”

The BD Medical team had decided from the outset that they did not want to pursue product solutions. Rather, any new ideas would be in the realm of marketing, packaging, content, or educational programs to help in the effective and efficient management of the practice and their patient population. Bajars and her team decided early on that they wanted to take a step back to understand the broader context of the company’s ultimate customers, the physicians and their staffs. What keeps them up at night? What are the major challenges of their jobs? In short: what are the experiences they have as health care professionals? It was their skill at story-listening that helped them uncover an array of needs that went well beyond their specific product (in this case, the devices for delivering vaccines).

And the art of story listening is something you can learn how to do. It is all about learning how to ask probing and open-ended questions that let you get into the lives of your customers and help you understand both the “outside” and the “inside” of their experience – i.e. what are the external factors impacting them and how do they perceive and react “inside” to these “outside” influences.

  • Tell me what a “day in your life” looks like
  • Could you describe your “best” day? your worst day?
  • Can you tell me more?
  • If you had a magic wand and could make anything happen what would do?
  • And the ultimate question to get at the key emotional element – How would that make you feel?

These kinds of questions invariably lead the customer to give you a rich experiential narrative of what they are living with — providing you with deep insights into what a winning customer experience would look like.

Note: For some interesting additional reading on story listening here is a recent article that appeared on that topic in the Qualitative Research Consultants Association’s Winter 2009 QRCA Views publication.


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