Signal vs. Noise vs. Customers

There’s quite the conversation going on over at 37signals‘ “Signal vs. Noise” blog today, and I’m still puzzling over why said conversation is even taking place. What’s going down: Matt Linderman, from 37s, today put up a post that starts like this:

Useless, absurd, must, need, appalled, just, infuriating, essential, etc.

“What could be more fun than those magnetic words that let you write poems on the fridge? How about a set of magnetic words that let you write support emails. Our kit would include the following: useless, absurd, must, need, appalled, just, infuriating, essential, oversight, pointless, confusing, nutty, and maybe some good phrases too, like ‘it can’t be that hard,’ ‘i’m a programmer, i should know,’ and ‘even Blogger let’s you do that.’ Of course, the whole set should be ALL CAPS too.”

He then proceeds to excerpt fifteen customer emails that 37s has received, annotating each one with a snippet of text that certainly could be interpreted as an accusatory finger, highlighting what was wrong with each email that their support line had received.

After reading and re-reading the emails that Linderman posted, I’m even more puzzled. Yes, some of them contained some hyperbole. But what about the others, like this one?

“Please call me regarding my basecamp system — (615) 780-XXXX.”

Yeah. Boy, I could see how that would be upsetting…a customer wanted to connect with someone at her service provider. Or how about this one?

“We NEED a web based system like Basecamp, but I cannot tell if it will be any better by reading the information you have available. I’m looking for sort of a web based excel-like program. We need to be able to see at a glance every sponsor’s name, sponsor level, address, contact info, if they’ve been billed/payed, if we need/have artwork, and if they have comments. We need to authorize up to five people for editing and another 60 or so for viewing.”

Indeed. A customer clearly spelling out his requirements and needs. That customer must obviously be deluded and prone to hysterics.

The conversation plays out over 120+ comments. And then “JF” (I’m assuming Jason Fried, of 37signals) jumps in with two comments that, frankly, just seem defensive and tinged with the slightest bit of hubris, all at once.

“We’re well aware of that, we’re well aware of our cash flow, we’re well aware of our churn, we’re well aware of our signups, we’re well aware of our growth, we’re well aware of our big-picture customer satisfaction. We’re well aware of what we’re doing, thank you.”


“120 comments in and I’m surprised we haven’t heard from a progressive thinker who might wonder if all this ‘bad’ stuff is actually good for business. Could these sorts of discussions actually be good for a non-traditional business like 37signals? Do sales/signups go up on days with these heated debates? Could there be a positive business motive behind all this that more traditional business observers haven’t groked?”

Now, Cerado is a customer of 37signals, in that we use Basecamp. But this last quote from Fried has given me pause, and I’m hoping it’s not a canary in the coalmine. The phrase “Do sales/signups go up on days with these heated debates?” is looking at a point in time. It’s solely looking at the transaction. Now, couple that with the fact that (I hope!) any rational customer would certainly entertain taking his business elsewhere if he saw his support request pilloried in the public square as an example of what not to do. Put those two data points together, and one begins to wonder if 37signals is truly doing something differently (as they continuously claim), or if it’s just another business looking for the quick turn, long-term-relationships be damned.

Others talking:

Zoli Erdos
Jason Kolb
Kandace Nuckolls
Steve Portigal
Marcus Campbell
Joe Taylor Jr.

(thanks to Zoli for the tip)

The Forrester “Social Computing” Paradox

Charlene Li gives an overview of Forrester’s new “Social Computing” report. Key “tenets of social computing” outlined by Charlene:

  • innovation will shfit from top-down to bottom-up
  • value will shift from ownership to experience
  • power will shift from institutions to communities

The third point is the one that caught my eye in particular, as it seems to be another point of validation on the idea that we are moving down this path:

Transactions => Conversations => Relationships => Communities (much more behind the link)

And then we get to the heart of the matter. Charlene:

“As I often stress, it’s not about the technologies but about the new relationships that users will form. Technologies will come and go, but the power built on the relationships created by social computing will endure.

To fully appreciate the value of social computing, companies have to let go of control. That means letting customers control the brand if you’re a marketer, and it means enabling new enterprise tools that IT can’t easily control to attract and support employees with high social computing needs. In many ways, this is the source of the great distress that I routinely hear from corporate managers.” (emphasis added)

Now the paradox…the report is only available to Forrester clients. If anyone has a copy, I’d love to see it.

Business Podcasting Article In The Baltimore Sun

The key line: “In what amounts to a nationwide social experiment, corporate America is testing whether this cheap and quirky medium proves useful in the battle to reach the public, communicate meaningfully with employees and keep costs down.”

link: Corporations go off a-podcasting

(Disclosure: I’m quoted in the article. Also, a huge guffaw out to Social Customer reader Dave Ritter who has the best line in the article, which was pulled from the comments here.)

What’s Preventing Wider Uptake Of CEO Blogging?

Chris Anderson’s solid thoughts on why “business blogging != executive blogging.” Anderson:

“The best business blogs come from the employees, not the bosses. They have more time, and are less prone to marketing gobbledygook and gnomic platitudes. And those kind of blogs are on the rise, not the decline.

The most successful business blogs are peer-to-peer: engineers, designers and managers within a company blogging about their own projects for the engineers, designers and other customers outside the company who use those products or care about that project.”

The second ‘graph really nails it…”the most successful business blogs are peer-to-peer.” And while I agree with most of his points in the post, I continue to wonder…what is it that prevents a typical (or, perhaps more approprately, a “prototypical”) CEO from connecting with customers in a natural manner? Is it because their blogs (like many speeches) would be ghost-written, and the individuals assigned to the task only know how to speak in generic, stilted terms? Is it because the prototypical CEO has neither the attention span nor interest in connecting with customers 1-on-1? Is it because they are stuck in a transactional mindset that doesn’t include actual conversations and relationships with their customers? Do they feel that, since they make 14x the annual income of their “average” customer (I made that statistic up), that they have nothing to talk about?

What is it?

(hat tip: dave)

Heavens To Marketroid!

Steve Hall asks, what if there was a “Customer Conversations Department?” Hall:

“I’d…suggest the creation of an entirely new discipline headed by a director of customer/consumer conversation/dialog. The sole responsibility if this person/department would be to converse and listen to the consumers with no interest in selling product.

This is not achieved though doing surveys or hosting focus groups or through agency account planning efforts. It is achieved by talking to customers/consumers as one would if they were discussing a product at a cookout or dinner party. This is not stuff that can be rolled up neatly into a spreadsheet of a PowerPoint presentation. This is roll-the-sleeves-up, get-dirty-with-the-customer conversation.” But it shouldn’t be a “department.” It may need to start that way, but ultimately every person within an organization who comes in contact with a customer:

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Customer Support
  • Product Marketing
  • Delivery
  • Executives
  • etc.

needs to feel this way. Why? Because, customers don’t interact with a silo’d “department.” And every customer has the ability to talk about his or her experience with the company via these crazy, newfangled blog thingers…regardless of which department was involved in the interaction.

Tom Hespos runs with this idea. Hespos:

“I think we can agree that comparatively few companies have made any sort of investment in opening and continuing meaningful dialogue with their customers online. We’ve got the broadcast model to thank for that. As you know, when you’re holding a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. When folks are out there praising or panning a product or brand, corporations tend to look at the problem as a mass marketing problem. In reality, most of the panning can be dealt with effectively by empowering somebody to join the conversation, actually listen, and take the feedback to the company for incorporation. Most of the praise can be greatly amplified in the same way.”

and Doc pushes it further:

“This is a provocative proposition. What Tom’s talking about here is going way beyond the rogue Scoble, or even the hundreds (thousands?) inside companies like Microsoft and Sun. We’re talking here about changing marketing’s function (or a large part of it) from messaging to conversation.”

(Be sure to check out the spot-on comment from Mike Taht, which has a couple of great thoughts on what out-of-work marketers can put on their cardboard signs.)

This is the right direction. There are a few fundamental things that need to occur to keep this snowball rolling, however.

Per the comments from the others above, execs in organizations from the smallest to the largest need to get whupped upside the head with the clue mackerel, and understand what’s happening here.

Folks on the front lines need to get out of the “transactional” mindset, and start thinking about conversations, and relationships and communities.

Systems need to change. Existing (so-called) customer relationship management systems don’t get us there. Actually, I take that back. CRM systems could get us there, if the individuals using them started thinking about using the systems as tools to track persistent conversations over time (note: link is a PDF), as opposed to being tools that sales management uses to know how soon they need to warn Wall Street that they’re going to miss their quarter. (Don’t even get me started on the whole “living life one quarter at a time” mindset thing. Grrr.)

And, finally, from the “do-ocracyside of things, we, as customers, need to be rationally vocal when we are treated poorly (or ignored). As customers, we need to continue to let our service providers know when they are screwing up, through all means available. They can’t listen if we don’t talk, and write, and start voting with our wallets when they blow it.

So, my question to you…what do we need to do next to keep this going?

Links, all in one tidy place:

Related posts from The Social Customer Manifesto:

Who’s Listens To Blogs? Andreesen, Bradbury, Rhodes, Sifry, Wyman…

Alex Barnett pulls together a definitive Cluetrain / “markets are conversations” post.

Example one from Alex:

“The first of the three events this week is to do with splogs – spam via RSS feeds and blogs. I posted about my experience of the problem and called out:

“Question to the feed search engine folks…(David Sifry, Blake Rhodes, Bill Bob Wyman are you listening?)…how do we stop this? Can we? It can’t be good for your business if this kind of thing takes off, can it?”

Within 24 hours David, Blake and Bob each posted a comment on my blog, acknowledging the industry-wide issue and confirming their companies’ commitment to solving the problem.”

Ok, cool. But all the folks above are in the blog business, so maybe it’s not that surprising. Which leads to example 2…Alex wonders…what the heck does “Ning” do?

Alex: “I speculated on a couple of revenue models and wrote, tongue-in-cheek…’Good question…Marc Andreessen might but hasn’t share the biz-plan me yet. Are you there Marc?'”

A few hours later, what does he find? A comment from Andreesen.

“Alex — your description of what we are trying to do is very well said. It’s an experiment, but those are the goals.

We are going to see if we can generate enough revenue through a blend of advertising (like Google, Yahoo, etc.) and premium services to be able to support what we are doing, including the free developer accounts.”

Brilliant. The third? Alex notes a functional deficiency in FeedDemon, “The file can’t be exported (OPML, would be nice Nick?…anything!)” What does he find two days later in his comments from Nick Bradbury?

“Just wanted to let you know that I’ve added OPML export of the reports to the next build of FeedDemon – expect to see this in RC2.”

It’s so easy for a company to do this. Set up an RSS feed to listen. Listen to it. If a customer has a question or concern, take the few seconds required to answer it on their turf. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Scratch that. It’s not easy for a “company” to do this. It’s so easy for a person to do this. Companies (despite their legal existence as “entities”) really can’t do anything on their own. They don’t walk. They don’t talk. They don’t bathe. They can’t communicate.

People communicate. That’s where relationships happen. Between people.

(hat tip: Kevin Briody)

From Transactions To Community

IvyladderHave been road-testing this model over the past few months, most recently with the fine folks from Blue Marble Marketing, and would love your feedback as well.

The interactions between customers and vendors are in a state of flux, and, as best as I can tell, are moving up through the levels shown in the graphic to the right. These are as follows:

The Transaction stage: At this point, both customer and vendor are thinking of their interaction as a “one shot” deal. The vendor’s trying to sell something, the customer is going to buy something, and that’s it. Historical knowlege of the other party, as well as the potential for future interactions, is not even really part of the equation. At least in most “traditional” markets, most organizations are still mired at the “transactional” level. Push, push, push…the vendor creates a product, markets it, spins it, and tries to reap as much short-term profit as possible. It’s a “one size fits all” type of interaction, and if the customer doesn’t like it, he or she can go elsewhere. And customers will.

The challenge in going from “Transaction” to “Conversation”: You need to stop talking, and listen.

The Conversation stage: This is the first realization from the vendor’s perspective that, huh, whatta-ya-know, customers might have some opinions and beneficial input into the process of doing business. Everything from features (both pro and con) to terms to future direction of the organization are things on which the customer may have an opinion. The vendor starts to listen, and starts to create a dialogue, at least for some period of time. The conversation may take place around a particular transaction (i.e. the customer and vendor work together to collaboratively “discover” all the aspects of a particular transaction), or the two parties may be exchanging information and each go off on their own afterward.

The challenge in going from “Conversation” to “Relationship”: You need to stop thinking in terms of “making this quarter’s numbers” and start thinking about how you can contribute to the conversation over weeks, months, years.

The Relationship stage: Conversations are good, very good, in fact. However, managing them over time takes effort, again, on the part of both parties. First off, participation in a conversation over time requires commitment. Commitment to follow up and execute on agreements that have been made, commitment to continue to contribute to each others’ well-being, commitment to work shoulder-to-shoulder (as opposed to confrontationally across a contract) when challenges emerge (and they will). A big part of building relationships is committing to having a long-term memory, as well as a long-term future view. There are a few folks who are eidetic; the rest of us need to have processes and systems in place to augement our feeble crania. Everyone is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. But regardless of the mechanism that is used (be it a bazillion dollar software package or a set of 3×5 notecards), having some way of recalling past conversations and their associated commitments, and noting what future commitments are in place, are all required components.

The relationship level is where things start to get really, really interesting. Customers aid in designing products with a vendor. Vendors do things for a community without (necessarily) expecting an immediate quid pro quo in the form of a sale (but believe that doing the right thing now will make everyone better off down the line). Loyalty, customer satisfaction, and not incidentally profits, start to blossom.

The challenge in going from “Relationship” to “Community”: You need to give up control, and trust your customers.

The Community stage: Major tectonics come into play when moving from relationships to community. First and foremost, everything discussed up until now is primarily pair-wise, that is, it occurs between two parties (for this discussion, primarily between a particular customer and a particular vendor). However at the community level, the partitions between sections of the walled garden fall away, and everyone starts to connect with everyone else. For an organization trying to make a buck (pound, yen, yuan, etc.), its role changes markedly at this point. Hopefully, when exiting from the “transactional” view of the world, this evolution already took place, and the vendor organization realized that it cannot dictate the conversation. At the community stage, vendors need to realize that they need to step back even further, and in many cases may not be participating in a some conversations at all (but certainly better be listening to them).

(Another great view on the “community” level of this, from Lee LeFever.)

At the community stage, the role of the vendor changes to that of enabler, providing the venue where great things happen and solutions get created. Perhaps the vendor is providing infrastructure, or knowledge, or support, or expertise, but…whatever is being provided…it’s just a part of the whole picture. In many cases, the customers in a community will be aiding each other (think forums, think user groups, think collaborative development). The vendors that will excel at this stage of the game will be the ones with enough confidence to act as gracious hosts, providing the rich soil where the important ideas grow.

Note: A huge thank you to Doc, for this loamy conversation, from which this thinking has sprouted.

(And I’m afraid I’ve just sown an entire field of perennial gardening puns…)

Rhymes With “Mitch Frog”

Comcast hits a new low. (And that’s saying something.) The Chicago Tribune is reporting:

“Until recently, LaChania Govan’s complaints about Comcast’s service seemed relatively tame. The 25-year-old Elgin mother of two said she was put on hold, disconnected, even transferred to the Spanish language line.

But after persistent problems with her digital recording system forced her to make dozens of calls to the cable company in July, her August bill came with a change really worth complaining about: In place of her name were the words ‘Bitch Dog.'”

“We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone cable company.”

(hat tip: Jeff Jarvis, who just wrote a great letter to Michael Dell, BTW)

ZDNet UK Apologizes to Google (Sort Of…)

As you may have seen, the San Francisco Chronicle has reported the Google has banned its representatives from speaking with reporters from CNet for a period of one year, on the heels of a CNet article that used Google CEO Eric Schmidt as a example of the extent and type of personal information that can be found using Google itself.

Now, sister publication ZDNet UK has issued a scathing…well, I guess you could call it an “apology”…for the actions of From ZDNet UK:

“Acting under the mistaken impression that Google’s search engine was intended to help research public data, we have in the past enthusiastically abused the system to conduct exactly the kind of journalism that Google finds so objectionable.

Clearly, there is no place in modern reporting for this kind of unregulated, unprotected access to readily available facts, let alone in capriciously using them to illustrate areas of concern.”

As Jay writes, blogs are the little First Amendment machines that could. Although in the case above there were two organizations of substantial size involved, the same voice and reach are available across the board to all (ref: let’s do a search on, say, “horrible service”) and it becomes quickly apparent that the mean time to worldwide visibility of an issue can be literally measured in minutes — from incident, to impact, to (in this case) snarky response.

Others talking:

Alan Wexelblat at Corante
Matt Marshall at SiliconBeat
John Battelle at Searchblog
Dan Gillmor at Bayosphere

When Customers Blog

Susan Getgood has a great, two-part post on customer blogs (that is, enterprise-sponsored blogs that are written by customers of that organization). Here they are:

Customer Blogs: What type of company should do one? and
Customer Blogs: What you need to do to make it work.

Good stuff, read the whole thing, etc.

Some tidbits, to help stack the deck in favor of success. Susan says consider a customer blog if…

  • Customers love the product
  • Customers are already talking in some fashion
  • Others can learn from the customers’ conversations (Susan calls this “exploting an information gap,” but isn’t it more about conversation and learning, rather than “exploitation?”)
  • The hosting company is willing to give up control

The last one’s the biggie, isn’t it? It goes back to trusting the customer, I suppose…

(what’s this?)