One of the reasons I really like Drs. Thaler, Andre Geim, Jim Allison and Richard Feynman (All Nobel Laureates by the way) is their “F* it” attitude around asking questions. Specifically, questions that may be perceived as dumb, ridiculous, or just outright stupid. These are both perceptions by the receiver of the question, and the asker. For Dr. Thaler (and his Nobel Laureate colleagues), fortunately, they didn’t care about the perception.
Those perceptions never stopped them, no matter how they were ridiculed (explicitly or not) by their peers and colleagues. They simply charged forward, asking the questions anyway. Then, without answers — ones they could find or ones they were happy with — they set to work to craft equally ‘simple’, or self-acknowledged crazy experiments that, in some instances, never were funded for, to learn their own answers. (Winning Nobel prizes along the way)
There is a great TEDx video of Dominic Walliman, a quantum physicist, talking about the courage it takes to ask questions. He admits to being in conversations with his colleagues, and experts in other topics, where he just lost all understanding. He shares that in the moment where some start to lose the thread of a conversation or subject matter, there’s simply not a lot they can do to better understand the subject in the moment. All of that control or accountability actually lies with the communicator of that subject matter.
“…it does take a bit of courage to do this as you are kind of admitting that you don’t know the subject matter. But I think that’s okay, and in fact, my fears were completely unwarranted. Generally people respect you if you care that much about knowing the right information, or care about it like understanding it properly. So, I think we should never feel bad about not knowing something, and we should never feel bad about asking questions”Dominic Walliman, TEDxEastVan, Explaining quantum physics to 7 year olds
I found the comment “Generally people respect you if you care that much about knowing..” a gross over-generalization (but also wonderfully optimistic and inspirational). In my experience, both as a research biologist and an operator in business (software product management and industrial psychologist), this tendency to ask questions feels interwoven in my DNA. I bring it to my work whether I’m hired for it or not, whether I’ll get fired for it or not. It’s immutable.
In the walls of corporate America, especially, I realized just how courageous one has to be to ask those questions, especially the simple, mundane and seemingly ‘stupid’ ones. As an N of 1, I have witnessed and felt how absent respect is for those who ask questions.
This got me to thinking about customers and their questions; specifically, about the products they buy and try to use to make real and significant progress in their lives.
Like teachers in our educational system, customer support or customer success professionals are the main, if not first, touch point people have with your brand. They, too, teach. They facilitate. They mediate. They console, counsel, comfort and bring joy and sense of accomplishment. [And, unfortunately, like teachers, not all customer success/support professionals are compensated for the value they are bringing to the company for their critical service.]
But in some companies, the skills and attributes required to be an excellent teacher and facilitator are absent. Namely, how well can your CS team help others understand what they must do — heck, CAN do — in order to move forward? How do you know?
And for those that excel, what systems and feedback loops exist that empower those teams when they spot negative trends or or re-occurring problems that cause repeated questions?
Importantly, do you care?
Essentially, if your service and product is so difficult to integrate or use, what systems exist that empower CS teams to surface that cross-functionally so critical and necessary fixes can be done to turn around lagging indicators of “customer understanding”, i.e. low activation, adoption rates or NPS scores?
Does Your Business Cause Customer Guilt?
Like Dominic mentioned in his video, people may feel guilting to admit — via their question — that using your product is difficult, its cumbersome, that they just can’t seem to figure it out. The lagging indicator for this, of course, is low activation, high churn and low renewal rates.
In all of this exploration, these questions surface:
What assumptions underlie a company’s product feature development? Its customer support and success team’s development and growth? It’s people ops and strategy (job descriptions, recruiting, interviewing rubrics, hiring and compensation practices?)
What are a company’s values and perspective on customer questions, and its action plan for welcoming them?
How do teams and leaders assess CS professionals’ competency in active listening, facilitation or education, when it calls for it? How are they offered additional skill building to excel?
How are these CS team and individual attributes recognized, for their frequency and results, in your org?
**If you are in the middle of tackling these questions, or have already done so, please email me! I’d love to learn more about how you’re doing it, or what you did.