Clear customer communication: Life lessons from your math teacher

by Marc Sokol on September 8, 2010

What do these two situations have in common with the advice you got from your fifth grade math teacher?

Situation #1: Market assessment to support valuation of an M&A target. We are working with a client to shape a consumer survey. This includes targeting what type of consumer is really best suited to comment on future demand for the product. We are also carefully designing questions that allow us to quantify their opinions into a proxy for estimates of future demand.

Situation #2: Complex business modeling under a time crunch. In an ideal world the manager doing the financial modeling will get to present his analyses and explain how the answers change as the business conditions also change. In the real world the manager’s work is passed along to another manager and then to another in rapid succession. Without the first manager present, those now looking at the model begin to consider new business conditions and can’t retrace the assumptions of the original model because they were never documented (still inside the head of junior manager). They become frustrated and begin to assume the junior manager doesn’t really know his numbers.  A sad situation as he does know his numbers, but can’t make his case when he is absent from the discussion.

Your fifth grade math teacher had it right all along – show all work! Bright kids often see this as a waste of time since they can figure out so many problems in their head. They know how A and B combine to create D, the solution, so why write it down?    

This is a life lesson to be gained from your fifth grade math teacher:

You don’t just lose points for not showing the assumptions behind your answer; you frustrate the person who is trying to figure out why your numbers don’t add up, or why you got to a solution that doesn’t make sense to them. Yes, in some cases they can and will retrace your steps to deduce your assumptions. Unlike your kind-hearted math teacher, many potential customers get frustrated and downright angry if they can’t figure out your logic.

Who wants to buy something when you can’t figure what you are paying for?

How often has this happened to you?

• Can’t figure out the price comparison between two different sized versions of the same product in the supermarket? You just walk away.

• Too many variations to choose from, as described in Barry Schwartz’ classic jam study, with no clear logic to help you choose? You just walk away.

• Can’t compare between two brands of consumer electronic products because there are so many dimensions of comparison and each one seems apples to oranges? Ignore the product comparison and seek out someone to guide your analysis.

If you can’t make your logic and assumptions accessible, then even your best customer is likely to go from a nice well-meaning collaborative person who wants to spend their money on your product/service to a confused, then frustrated, then angry, and then absent customer. Either they will physically leave or they will mentally exit, at least as far as your marketing/sales pitch is concerned.

What to do?

Show all work. Your math teacher will smile from afar if you would just make it easy to see the assumptions behind your price and brand differential (why it cost more, less, or why you still offer a better value at the same low, low price).

Allow customers to select a subset among the many factors you use to come to your own answers. The Best Places To Live guides do a nice job of this, and rather than take their advice as the one answer (although Eden Prairie, Minnesota where I work IS rated the best place to live), you can review the subset of the factors they examine.

Provide a step-wise guide to making choices. One client of ours does a very nice job of this. They sequence you through your decision process, so you aren’t overwhelmed by the multitude of options open to you.

Empower customers to play with the numbers. If you are confident, provide an app, a spreadsheet or some way for customers to plug in different scenarios so they can come up with a solution that is just right for them. Retirement savings calculators do a good job of this. Wouldn’t you like to provide a resource that keeps your customers coming back to your site and your brand?

Pre-test your logic. Another client of ours above is really committed to making their logic easy to follow; they pretest order forms and different order packages, not only to find out how customers tend to make purchase decisions, but also to make sure they remove any sources of potential confusion.

Of course this assumes you believe there are meaningful difference between your product, your brand and your marketing package. Our clients do. What about you?

How do you make it easy for customers to make decisions about your product or service?

How do you go about sharing your assumptions and testing those with customers?

BestCustomerConnection, by Marc Sokol

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