Based on Research By Tony Gorry and Robert A. Westbrook

Stories From Clients Don’t Just Entertain: They Educate

  • The larger the business, the harder it is to listen to individual customers.
  • But feedback can pinpoint crucial problems and successes. Both can improve your business.
  • Chat with customers on social media to understand how they interact with your business. Then promote their stories to build the company culture you need.

Listen up. Pull your head out of the marketing data. Pay attention to your customers–then use their stories to build a successful, inventive business.

All entrepreneurs understand that a healthy business must know its customers. This means listening in order to address problems, and using customer feedback to innovate. It’s old-school business, and there still is no better way to boost market share.

For many companies, though, this is easier said than done. Small, owner-operated businesses traditionally deal with customers face to face, building their relationships one at a time. But for large, multi-national corporations with millions of consumers, it’s daunting to connect with enough of them to truly understand their experiences.

Tony Gorry and Bob Westbrook, both professors at the business school, looked at the way large corporations attend to their customers’ stories and use them, if at all, to create a company culture.

A big company’s standard procedure, of course, would be to analyze quantitative data to craft a sort of paint-by-numbers portrait of its customers. But individual voices can get lost in this quantity of information. And customer feedback – individual voices on a macro scale – is where the most valuable marketing information lies, Gorry and Westbrook argue. Go beyond the data, they urge large companies, and listen to individual customers again.

The idea is not merely to respond to customer complaints. It’s also to find the kind of tales that can inspire others. And it works. Several leading companies are already doing this, Gorry and Westbrook write, tapping people’s innate taste for stories in order to improve customer relations and fuel organizational creativity.

Storytelling, they argue, lies at the core of what makes us human. Narratives appeal to empathy, which in turn inspires us to act.

Companies such as Harley-Davidson, Kimberly Clark, Levi-Strauss and Ritz-Carlton are skilled at this, deliberately training employees to pass along out-of-the-ordinary tales that illustrate client needs and the power of attending to them. They’re the kind of stories colleagues might tell at a staff meal, like the one about the chef at Ritz-Carlton Bali, who flew in his mother-in-law from Singapore carrying specific ingredients so he could make a soothing meal for a sick client.

But getting employees to gather tales like this for work is tricky. Gorry and Westbrook came up with an approach companies can use for spotting and collecting useful stories.

First, senior managers need to know why they’re trying to learn more from customers. Maybe they’re trying to upgrade customer service. Maybe they want to improve a product. The clearer the intention, the better the questions they can ask. And, Gorry and Westbrook point out, there’s value in listening just to keep up with what customers are thinking and feeling.

Next, managers must choose where the listening will take place: a call-in center, sales, technical support or other point of contact.

Then they should decide who will take part in the project. The group that is gathering information should be big enough to glean a proper sample of customers, and small enough to train and manage.

The next challenge: how to collect the stories? It could be via management talking directly with customers. Or company employees might emulate ethnographers, gathering stories via conversations with customers on social media.

Finally, managers have to choose what stories to save, and what to do with them. Those answers depend on the answer to the first question: What is the purpose of the research in the first place?

When a business grows, so does its distance from customers. But there are ways to cross that gap, and it is well worth it, Gorry and Westbrook argue. “By truly caring about storytelling,” they write, “business leaders can better serve their customers and their companies.”

Ever since the first innkeeper served a traveler, service providers have amused each other with tales gleaned from their clients. These tales are even more valuable up in the C-suite, Gorry and Westbrook say. Gathered carefully, customer stories are the seeds of top service, visionary products and healthy company culture – which includes great conversations in the break room.

G. Anthony Gorry is Friedkin Professor Emeritus of Management and Robert A. Westbrook is William Alexander Kirkland Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Gorry, G. A. & Westbrook, R. A. (2011). Can you hear me now? Learning from customer stories. Business Horizons, 54(6), 575-584.