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Business Horizons (2011) 54, 575584

www.elsevier.com/locate/bushor

Can you hear me now? Learning from customer stories


G. Anthony Gorry, Robert A. Westbrook *
Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, Rice University, 6100 Main Street, MS 521, Houston, TX 77005-1892, U.S.A.

KEYWORDS
Storytelling; Market research; Customer feedback; Social media

Abstract A large business generally knows its customers through quantitative analyses and summary reports, which are staples of market research and corporate reporting. Too often, the voices of individual customers are mufed by a torrent of numbers, and the stories they would tell are garbled. Few managers and even fewer executives hear customers speak, in their own words and ways, about the companys products and services. Yet, as we discuss, these stories may suggest enhanced customer service, better products, and organizational innovation; indeed, a number of companies have shown that the value of attentiveness to customer stories can be great. Herein, we describe a controlled, exploratory approach a company might take to develop its own engagement with customer storytelling one that encompasses not only its interactions with customers along the front line, but also conversations ongoing in social media. Our proposal demands sustained commitment from senior management. We counsel senior executives to lead by example, to listen to customer stories, to learn from them, and to share them with others in the executive suite. By truly caring about storytelling, business leaders can better serve their customers and their companies. # 2011 Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. All rights reserved.

The story of each stone leads back to a mountain. W. S. Merwin

1. Understanding customers
For a business to prosper, it must serve its customers; to serve them well, it must understand their needs

* Corresponding author. E-mail addresses: tony@rice.edu (G.A. Gorry), westbro@rice.edu (R.A. Westbrook).

and desires. Such knowledge may, however, prove difcult to acquire. In the general store of decades ago, the proprietor dealt personally with customers who voiced their opinions, suggestions, complaints their feedbackdirectly to top management, as it were: the person who could restock or recongure the store to serve them better. While nostalgia may erase some of the limitations of the general store, the value of direct contact between owner and customer is not imagined. It was real; a vital interaction enabled by the scale and locality of the business. In a typical large business today, many organizational layers separate customers from the executive

0007-6813/$ see front matter # 2011 Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2011.08.002

576 suite. Quantitative analyses, fed by pervasive technology, are surrogates for personal interactions with the customers who ultimately decide the fate of the business. From surveys, sales pipeline reports, mystery shopping metrics, and website trafc data, management draws inferences about customer needs, preferences, and behavior in the aggregate. To add detail to these studies, companies may employ qualitative research methods such as depth interviews, focus groups, and ethnographic interviews. Still, in large and complex businesses, the quantitative generally holds sway. What business leaders know of customers, they learn from marketing, sales, operations, and customer service reports; the latter tell much about customers in general, but little about them as individuals. While helpful, the abstraction of customers into graphs, charts, and statistics or even qualitative research summariesnever fully recompenses for the loss of direct interactions with them and knowledge about them. As a result, executives may miss market opportunities, ignore competitive threats, or promote strategies that fail to achieve competitive advantage. Managers, overcondent in their understanding of customers, may be deaf to their needs and concerns. And in misunderstanding customers, executives may adopt strategies that make their companies vulnerable to competitors. For these reasons, a number of writers have urged senior managers to get out of the executive suite and step into their customers shoes via eld trips and other exercises designed to introduce customers as people, not numbers (Patnaik, 2009; Yellin, 2009). In these encounters, executives may hear for the rst timeunedited accounts of the dealings of customers with the company and its offerings. Such an account is a story, which as Merwin (2008) says, may come as a new sense. What is learned by listening attentively to customer stories may augment, deepen, and even recast insights derived from abstraction and quantitative analysis. Here, we argue such listeningnot just in episodic and orchestrated encounters, but in the course of everyday business as wellcan be a valuable complement to a companys ongoing efforts to understand its customers, and to learn from them. Storytelling plays a role in certain qualitative research, where it serves as an unstructured and non-directed way of learning how customers feel about goods, services, and companies (Flanagan, 1954; Levy, 1981; Zaltman, 1997). While respondents in these studies cast their experiences as narratives, their storytelling is part of a broader inquiry, which includes other forms of questioning and observation. In contrast, we emphasize the

G.A. Gorry, R.A. Westbrook value of customer stories themselves as feedback. We want customer stories to escape the disciplinary constraints that so often limit their circulation to marketing or customer service functions. We want them freely told by customers, not just recounted in response to the companys requests for explanations of actions, thoughts, and outcomes. We want to preserve the integrity of customer stories as individually told, because companies can gain important feedback from unsolicited stories that are not commingled, but rather are instead preserved as narratives of individual experiences.

1.1. Standing in the customers shoes


We are not speaking of stories metaphorically, as in the case of a quantitative report that offers statistics as surrogates for what customers are telling us. Rather, we mean the kind of narrative that we all would easily recognize as a story or a part of one: a customers own account of experiences with specic goods, services, or companies. Our lives are awash in stories. We are inveterate storytellers and avid listeners. In idle moments, we even tell stories to ourselves. We have marshaled books, movies, theaters, radio, television, and now the Internet to feed our insatiable appetite for engagement with the lives of others, real and imagined. But why do stories so resonate with us? Over 100 years ago, Joseph Conrad (1987, p. xv) suggested that stories appeal to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom: to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisitionand, therefore, more permanently enduring. This gift emerged over the long course of human development. Storytelling became for the mind what play is for the body: a stimulus for practice and a rehearsal for execution. It encouraged creativity by permitting imaginative explorations unencumbered by current facts or situations (Boyd, 2009). In ancient records, we nd that soon after the invention of writing, scribes began to record tales of adventure, magic, love, and lossand we have been telling stories ever since. Few of us, though, could explain exactly what constitutes a story. So it is with customer stories. Accounts we have heard from others escape easy denition, but we have little trouble understanding stories that swirl around companies. Most are pedestrian and fragmentary; some are classic in that they are told and retold to exemplify the best and the worst of customer experiences. Some, however, bear the tantalizing prospect of insight and new understanding to the management of organizations. But will these stories reach management? Will management listen to them?

Can you hear me now? Learning from customer stories The following story likely found its way to management. It concerns a battle between a grieving daughter and Verizon over the disconnection of her deceased fathers service. A customer service representative refused to cancel her fathers telephone service, because she did not know the PIN to access his account. Months later, having submitted a death certicate and made repeated calls to Verizon, the daughter nally got the service closed, thanks primarily to media attention to her plight (Bilski, 2010). When we read her story, our empathy for the daughter is quickly aroused, as is our judgment regarding the treatment she received. Elsewhere, we read a story that moves us quite differently. Upon their arrival at the Ritz-Carlton in Bali, a family found that special food they had brought for their ill son had spoiled. Hotel staff members were unable to nd local substitutes, but the executive chef contacted his mother-in-law who bought the products in Singapore and ew to Bali to deliver them personally to the guests (Gallo, 2007). Because we respond so readily and empathetically to stories, such accounts attract attention and drive home conclusions more forcefully than numbers alone. Testimony before Congress becomes more vivid and compelling when members push voluminous reports aside and attend to the experience of a single person. This is no less true of news reports and documentaries, whose writers and directors know well the power of individual stories. Business leaders, however, remain strongly attached to quantitative assessments of customer desires and needs, apparently subscribing to the view that a story is not proof; it is just illustration (Abela, 2008, p. 67). A story does not need to prove something to be valuable, though. It may suggest; it may supplement; it may stimulate. A story may cast abstract analysis in a new light, making it easier to understand (Denning, 2000). We argue here that the feedback management might receive from customer stories could be more profound, engaging, and lasting than that inferred from statistics, graphs, and chartsas Einstein noted, not everything that counts can be counted. But at the periphery of a business with many customers, story after story clamors for attention and empathy. With so many customer stories, large businesses typically expect frontline personnel supported by technologyto respond to customers as best they can, even if the plea of a grieving daughter is thereby ignored or an account of superlative service is lost. Rarely do these stories nd their way further in the organization. Absent a newspaper report or an Internet posting, executives may be unaware of needs that might have been easily met were it not for rigid company protocols

577 and systems. Customer feedback that suggests improvements in products or operations or redirections of marketing efforts often falls by the wayside.

2. Storytelling in businesses
We argue that a large company with many customers should augment its ongoing acquisition of feedback from customers by listening to their stories in the everyday course of business. These stories emerge not only along the front line, but also in social networks where participants talk about the company, if not to it. It is important that stories from both settings be heard and considered, with the most relevant tales being set moving through the organizationeven to the executive suite. Business leaders, managers, and employees alike all share an innate devotion to stories and a highly developed ability to learn from them. Our natural empathy and avidity for stories ensure that throughout the organization, listeners are ready to give these a sympathetic hearing, provided that management encourages and supports such attention. Herein, we provide examples of companies that are listening attentively to customers, even when there are scores to be heard. Among other companies, Ritz-Carlton, Levi Strauss, Harley Davidson, and Kimberly-Clark have taken steps to include customer stories in their ongoing operations and organizational development. Their attention to storytelling has fostered better care for customers, stimulated ideas for products and services, prompted improvements in operations, and suggested more effective competitive strategies. These examples suggest that organizations anywhere can realize similar benets, if their senior managers take two key steps: (1) promote greater attention to customer stories throughout the organization, and (2) listen themselves to what customers have to say. Storytelling is naturally pervasive within companies: at coffee pots; in lunchrooms, elevators, and hallways; on the Internetwherever workers meet. Some stories have local importance for work and a few reverberate widely within the company. Xerox photocopier repairmen, for example, swapped stories about their work over early morning coffee, at lunch, and during breaks. Often, they would collaboratively develop war stories about complex repairs, with several individuals adding bits to the developing narratives. Early versions of these stories were later polished for sharing with less knowledgeable workers (Orr, 1996). Just as adults tell children stories not just to entertain them, but also to teach them, this kind of storytelling can facilitate the transfer of best practices so eagerly sought by

578 companies (Connell, Klein, & Meyer, 2004). Circulating within informal networks, stories help employees understand the nature of their work, facilitate their interactions with different parts of the business, and help knit together working communities. Research based on social constructivism, organizational symbolism, and critical theory has conrmed our intuition that storytelling is important in shaping a companys culture (Boyce, 1996). Stories help communicate values and overarching goals. Further, those crafted to specic business purposes can promote growth and change (Marshall & Adamic, 2010; Ohara & Cherniss, 2010) and can inform strategic thinking (Barry & Elmes, 1997). Scholarly studies of customer stories have occasionally appeared in the marketing literature. For example, there have been efforts to categorize stories and interpret them (Hopkinson & HogarthScott, 2001; Levy, 1981; Stern, 1995; Thompson, 1997); assess how customers respond to stories from other customers (Delgadillo & Escalas, 2004); and evaluate online reviews that include customer stories (Black & Kelley, 2009). One study showed managers were more willing to address complaints when they were expressed in customer stories (Resnik & Harmon, 1983). Other works have considered the benets to companies from listening to customer stories: improvements in products and services (Lieber & Davis, 1997) and guidance in developing new business offerings (Grifn & Hauser, 1993; Helkkula & Pihlstrom, 2010). Customer stories provided the basis for Fourniers (1998) study of the relationships formed by consumers with the brands they know and use, which is highly relevant to successful brand image management. Zaltman (1997) used stories in conjunction with images for much the same purpose. These studies support our broader contention that consistently listening to customer stories can give a company a new sense of the feelings and needs of its patrons, just as novels, by introducing imagined others, can make us more sensitive to the feelings of real people (Keen, 2007). But current technologysuch as voice response systems, interactive websites, and the liketoo often garbles customer conversations. Invoking the poet Merwin (2008, p. 63) again, we say customers are like laboratory animals who are caged in numbers / hidden in plain sight. Businesses suffer, too: they forego the knowledge sharing, nurturing of culture, and organizational development that could result from more attentive listening. Thus, in his heralded transformation of IBM, CEO Lou Gerstner charged his management team with meeting customers not to sell, but rather to gain feedback by listening to their

G.A. Gorry, R.A. Westbrook stories. At staff meetings, he asked: What are you learning about customers? What are they saying out there? Reection on the stories gathered by his management team helped Gerstner galvanize new thinking about the relationship of IBM to its customers (Gorry & Westbrook, 2010). A compelling customer story can catalyze understanding (Denning, 2000). For example, when the previously successful Microsoft Xbox team created Zune as a competitor to Apples iPod, the product failed miserably in the marketplace (Patnaik, 2009). The developers later acknowledged that with only quantitative market studies and reports to guide them, they had been unable to truly understand their target customers. Having not heard the stories of iPod customers, the team had little sense of that products appeal and hence could not create a successful competitor.

2.1. The wheat in the chaff


Of the customer stories that swirl around a large business, some are heard directly by employees; some get recorded in voicemail, email, or website comments; however, most are neither heard nor noted. And executives, like all of us, have learned to be suspicious of even tantalizing anecdotes. In some circles, the term anecdotal evidence has come to be used pejoratively. Yet amid the chaff, there is wheat. In businessas in our everyday lives certain stories have the power to open our eyes, open our hearts, and deepen our understanding. Yet, the prospect of many customer stories breaching company walls may be alarming. Even if most are dispatched at the front line, too many stories might nd their way into management ofces, stufng an inbox with burdensome demands for action. Before dismay and discouragement set in, though, think of stories not foremost as calls for redress, but rather as invitations to see situations from others points of view: a shift of perspective that may induce sympathy, understanding, reection, andonly thenperhaps action. Even when it impels no immediate action, a story may engender the poets new sense, raising awareness of a possible problem previously unrecognized. Then, for example, subsequent reports such as ones of apparently callous frontline behavior may move a more watchful management to action. Such changes mirror those alterations in our views and dispositions induced by our reading a number of novels with a common theme. The emergence of a new sensibility prepares us to act in new ways. A large company should manage customer stories much as we do in our daily lives: sifting through the ood from friends, coworkers, neighbors, and the

Can you hear me now? Learning from customer stories media. Most we entertain briey, then cast aside to focus on the few we deem worthy of our attention. A business can apply a similar mix of attentiveness and judgment in listening to customer stories. But which stories deserve attention? Which should ow from the front line to other parts of the organization? Understandably, there are no general answers to these questions. Each company must nd its own way through experimentation, practice, and considered reection. One company might seek narratives that exemplify the uses of its products. Another might collect narratives that suggest innovation. And yet another might listen to narratives to monitor what the market is saying about the company and its offerings. Our point is that each company should orchestrate the processes by which it collects stories and the resources it devotes to sharing them.

579 company closer to its customers. CEO Vaughn Beals rode his Harley to owner rallies and helped establish the Harley Owners Group (HOG), which brings together Harley owners for social events, bike rides, and community service projects. Executives participate in HOG rallies such as the cross-country Posse Ride (Fournier, Sensiper, McAlexander, & Schouten, 2000). During the time they spend among their customers, company management members hear stories and develop ideas for building better motorcycles. Ideas such as these are also welcomed at the Harley Davidson website. Increasingly, leading market researchers are urging companies to place greater emphasis on listening along the front lines, in contrast to what Kim DeckerVice President for Market Research at Procter & Gamblecalls the current focus on the check box that comes with the survey and feeding the metrics monsters within our companies (Neff, 2009). Coming from a company noted for its devotion to quantitative analysis, such advice gains added weight. Decker encourages marketers to get to know their customers as more than simple check boxes by meeting with them in social networks. For its part, Charles Schwab actively utilizes custom online communities in combination with ethnography to learn more about the needs of customers approaching retirement age than was possible via conventional survey questionnaires. Participation in the communities, which has given customers a new voice, is credited with helping Schwab add 30,000 new investors and accounts and gain more than $100 billion in assets in late 2010, despite the recent upheaval in nancial markets (Neff, 2009).

3. Some companies are listening


As an example, consider Levi Strauss. Within this company, the listening to and retelling of stories has enriched market research and enhanced reporting to management (Nastu, 2007; Perman, 2009). Levi Strauss denes stories as customer experiences described directly or in metaphor that capture the authenticity of the moment. More than 30,000 Levi Strauss employees elicit stories from customers on a regular basis, handling more than 80,000 customer care phone calls per year and culling from them stories that warrant further consideration and sharing (Perman, personal communication, October 10, 2010). The assessment of stories is highly purposeful: the company seeks insights that foster creativity in key business functions. Selected stories are circulated within customer service to motivate workers and are directed as appropriate to product development, design, branding, or marketing communications teams. Only those stories that demand their attention or contribute to their current considerations come before top management. A number of large companies, including FedEx and Mutual of Omaha, have developed their own ways of sharing customers and workers stories (Harris, 2010). At Ritz-Carlton, for example, senior management promotes the sharing of customer stories at regular employee gatherings in 21 countries around the world. Wow stories of the daysuch as that of the family visiting Bali, as heard by a waiter in Boston, a housekeeper in Shanghai, and a doorman in Hong Kongdevelop such powerful emotional connections between staff and customers that a guest will not consider staying anywhere else, if they have an option (Gallo, 2007). Harley Davidson, too, found that listening to stories brought the

3.1. Stories abound on the Internet


Prior to launching a new marketing program for its Intensive Rescue skin cream product, the management of the Vaseline brand searched the Internet for conversations concerning dry skin and skin issues (Vega, 2010). This investigation yielded a trove of unsolicited accounts of success and failure with various remedies. The company integrated three bloggers with compelling stories into the campaign. This effort was not just an extension of marketing into the digital domain: the unadulterated stories of present or potential Vaseline customers gave the company the new sense noted by the poet. The process though which the stories came to light, searching and scanning the Internet and social media, can be adopted by all large companies at modest cost. This new sense, however, may bring with it a mix of praise and disdain for the company. Consider the unattering stories, posted to the Web, which

580 presaged Comcasts ignominious entry into MSN Moneys Hall of Shame for customer service. The company knew from its surveys that service was a problem; indeed, 41% of Comcast customers in 2009 labeled service as poor. But by meeting personally with customers, executives were able to hear rsthand the individuals frustrations with late technicians and missed service appointments. In turn, management made customer care a top priority, authorizing $20 credits for each late service call. They also improved communications with their service workers. As a result, 84% of appointments were kept on time in 2009, and 94% were conducted on schedule in 2010 (Aho, 2010). Not all stories are tied to immediate customer service needs. Many deal with the relationship of the customer to the company and its products, and the ways in which the companys offerings enter into the customers life. Others suggest modications or improvements to products or services. Some even envision new offerings altogether. The My Starbucks Idea website (www.mystarbucksidea.com), for example, allows users to post suggestions for the company in various categories, and to rate other users posts. Employees acting as Starbucks Idea Partners respond to the posts, notify the appropriate internal Starbucks departments, answer user questions, and keep posters updated as to the status of the companys response to the idea. Some examples of ideas posted by users that the company has implemented include creating dome lids for reusable cups and offering meatless breakfast pairings, fruit smoothies, and mobile Starbucks Cards.

G.A. Gorry, R.A. Westbrook monitored by a human being and tossed out if they werent right? Thats the Starbucks I fell in love with. Thats the Starbucks experience that was worth the cost. Company CEO Howard Schultz was quick to recognize the signicance of such posts. He has committed Starbucks to restoring its emotional attachment with customers. In the same way, Ellen SonetVice President of Marketing at Memorial Sloan Ketteringrealized the need for a change of direction at the renowned cancer treatment institute. In the course of online conversations with patients on the National Comprehensive Cancer Center Network, Sonet discovered that a patients choice of treatment center was driven not by institutional reputation, as widely assumed, but rather the recommendation of a primary care physician (Li & Bernoff, 2008). While the proper allocation of marketing effort to community physicians might prove contentious, there was little doubt that the subject was worth the high-level attention of the institution and a change in its ways of reaching prospective patients. Table 1 provides a summary of how selected businesses are using customer stories. As these examples suggest, it is not difcult to recognize a story that warrants consideration by management. With only 3 hours of training, frontline employees at Levi Strauss learn to focus their innate abilitythe one Joseph Conrad claimed is our gift. Without any special training in listening, Ellen Sonet gained new understanding of cancer patients. Executives at Harley Davidson who join Harley riders in company-sponsored events, IBM executives who visit major clients in their ofces, and Nike managers who run in races are all naturally prepared to listen to customers and learn from them. It is seldom that a story contains a message for management that can only be understood by the specially prepared; rather, it is that a story laden with obvious signicance for the company fails to attain its proper place in the organization. When it comes to listening to customer stories, even an old company can learn new tricks. Fiskars Corporation is a 360-year-old Finnish metals and tool manufacturing rm that is well known for its cutting tools, particularly its ergonomic orangehandled scissors that are widely used by crafters: people passionately involved with scrapbooking. In 2006, Fiskars market research found that crafters increasingly viewed scissors and related craft tools as commodities and were unwilling to pay higher prices for Fiskars products or make any special efforts to obtain them. To restore its relationship

3.2. When you hear it, you get it


Starbucks also categorizes the posts by subject and displays counts of each on its website. Unedited customer stories add depth and richness to this numerical assessment. Thus, we learn that 23% of the posts concerned coffee and espresso drinks while 10% covered atmosphere and locations. But posted stories can suggest what lies behind the numbers. Here, for example, are the beginnings of two such narratives: I remember the days when I used to enter any Starbucks store, and my jacket would smell like French roast for a few minutes after I exited the store. This was from 1997 to maybe early 2001. After that, something happened. . .the machines were different, the coffee started tasting different; even the espresso had become bitter and the cappuccinos diluted. Am I the only one who absolutely longs for the good old days of the manual, timed shots

Can you hear me now? Learning from customer stories


Table 1. Company Ritz Carlton Companies listening to customer stories today Opportunity or Problem Maintain an organizational culture delivering world-class service Source of Stories Reports of interactions between service personnel and hotel guests Outcomes

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Wow stories of exceptional service are circulated throughout the organization worldwide to enhance a culture of service. Online community increases customer engagement with offerings, tests new products, tracks media coverage of company and competitors. Selected bloggers were integrated into a new online community to support both the campaign and the brand. Stories are analyzed and used in product development, design and marketing communications. Management better understands customers and is able to guide product improvement and relevant marketing programs. Quicker reading of changing customer desires and satisfaction with company offerings. Customers have greater voice in product development and marketing.

Fiskars

Offset commoditization of a key market for companys products

Fiskars buyers who do crafting (scrapbooking) and are active on the Internet

Vaseline

Create an effective online marketing communications programs to extend traditional media advertising Foster greater creativity in key business areas driving demand for company products Maintain deep insight into customer lifestyles and needs; ensure appropriate product development

Bloggers posting personal stories about dry skin problems and solutions

Levi Strauss

30,000 employees throughout the company have been trained to gather customer stories using ethnographic interviews Managers hear stories on Posse rides with Harley owners; stories also posted by customers on website

Harley Davidson

Starbucks

Adapt company offerings and venues to changing customer preferences Gain deeper understanding of the nancial needs of customers in retirement

Website for customers to recount their experiences and offer suggestions Ethnographic interviews; custom online community established and monitored

Charles Schwab

with crafters, the company created the Fiskateers community, an online forum initially moderated by four crafters. The idea was to let customers help one anotherto share stories, answer questions, and nd solutions to problemswithout promoting the companys products or virtues (Bernoff, 2008; Phillips, Cordell, Church, & Jones, 2010). Today, 1,000 more volunteer Fiskateers have been recruited and trained, and the reach of the Fiskateers extends well beyond the online forum. Special instore product demonstrations by Fiskateers bring customers to participating retailers and increase sales. Fiskateers frequently share their stories with company engineers on product development, and their personal reactions to proposed new products have proved to be excellent predictors of future

sales. The company also gains ongoing market feedback from the Fiskateers who watch for mentions of Fiskars and product placements across a range of media (Ochman, 2008). Fiskars listens to customers on several levels. If envisioned as a triangle, across a broad base are social media sources: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube. At a narrower level is the company website, with contests to encourage customer contributions. At the apex are the Fiskateers. Since recruitment of the rst Fiskateer, company revenue has tripled. Interestingly, Fiskars now makes markedly less use of traditional marketing programs, preferring instead to devote resources to social media and the successful Fiskateer community.

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G.A. Gorry, R.A. Westbrook 4. How should the team elicit stories from customers? As we have seen, there are many options. Lou Gerstner sent his management team to talk to key customers. Harley managers hop on their bikes and ride with clients. At Levi Strauss and Ritz Carlton, employees throughout the company act as amateur ethnographers to gather stories. Fiskars, Starbucks, Vaseline, and Sloan-Kettering reach customers in online communities. 5. What stories should be collected and what should be done with them? Training and our natural facility with stories will enable frontline employees, product developers, technical support staff, and marketing personnel to recognize important storiesparticularly those that call for changes in ways of working in their areas. They should be recorded, perhaps most conveniently in an electronic database. But stories from customer service may suggest changes in product design; stories from technical support may suggest changes in the ways products are marketed. Keyword coding, coupled with email alerts, can bring them to the attention of others in the organization. If those charged with passing on important stories forward too many, their revised charge should be to forward only the most important. We expect that most companies, having undertaken this exploration, will conclude that increased attention to storytelling makes business sense. Like the rms discussed, however, their ways of realizing its benets will differ. Some will emphasize increased personal contact with customers by employees, and perhaps executives, too. Others will modify existing systems to make them more receptive to customer stories. No matter the method employed, listening to customer stories will benet businesses in myriad ways.

4. The many ears of the business


Our natural avidity for stories ensures a company the ears to listen to what customers have to say. Whether stories tell of an excellent product or abysmal service; whether they emerge in gossip, newspapers, or on the Internet; employees need little special training to grasp their meaning. Unfortunately, the ears of workers are often closed by a focus on efciency, which enshrines cost saving as the overarching goal of customer service (Gorry & Westbrook, 2010). But as the examples provided herein demonstrate, a number of leading companies are exploiting our innate responsiveness to stories to foster better customer relations and engender organizational innovation. For the senior executive still wary of an unrewarding, even debilitating absorption in customer stories, we propose an exploration to learn how the company might best listen to customer stories and learn from them. Simply put, senior management should answer ve questions: why, where, who, how, and what. 1. Why do we want to learn more about our customers? Are we generally dissatised with what we know about them? Do we want to improve customer service or related operations? Or enhance product development? The answer need not be denitive; as exploration proceeds, a better answer may later emerge. But at the outset, even an intuition of how the business might benet from customer stories is sufcient. It suggests places in the organization where a project might be fruitfully undertaken, and it helps in the selection of the project team. 2. Where in the organization should we conduct our experiment? Perhaps on the front linein a call center, customer service group, in technical support or in sales. Likewise, product developers could reach out to customers to gather stories that typically escape sporadic surveys. 3. Who in the chosen area should participate in the project? The initial foray should involve a group large enough to collect a representative sample of stories, but small enough to train and manage. Selected managers and others from outside the area also should join the effort. Participants can be trained to listen to stories and be alert for those that raise important issues regarding the companys products, processes, and support services. For the exploration proposed here, this training should not prove burdensome. Recall that Levi Strauss trains its people in a matter of hours.

5. Shouldnt you be listening?


As a business grows in size and complexity, its distance from customers inevitably increases while its knowledge of them decreases. The company comes to know its customers only through quantitative analyses and summaries, which are the staples of corporate reporting. Few managers and even fewer executives hear stories from customers told in their own words and ways; yet those narratives may contain the seeds of enhanced customer service, better products, operational improvements, and organizational innovation. Unfortunately, executives may fear that attention to customers stories

Can you hear me now? Learning from customer stories will demand too much, especially when they doubt their worth in the rst place. A number of companies, however, have made attentiveness to customer storytelling an integral part of their organizational processes and development. Each has forged a way to gather and share stories such that the benets outweigh the costs. We have proposed an exploratory approach through which other companies might follow their lead. Here, we urge senior executives to lead such an undertaking by example. Make learning from customer stories part of your strategy. Listen to them yourselves and share them in the executive suite. As the poet, Merwin, said: The story of each stone leads back to a mountain. So keep asking, as did Lou Gerstner: What stories are our customers telling us? What do they mean for our business? By promoting attentiveness to customer storytelling, you can better serve your customers and your companies.

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