Customers, Computers and Companies

How companies are missing out on the benefits of customer storytelling and personal interaction.

By Tony Gorry & Bob Westbrook

In our title, computers stand between customers and companies as they so commonly do in today’s world of commerce. In digital technology, businesses have found new ways to relate to their customers and to gain more knowledge about them. And even beyond the rush of holiday shopping, the Internet offers customers quick and easy access to a greater array of goods and services than can be found in local venues, at lower prices as well. Despite the convenience of point and click shopping, however, many of us find pleasure in patronizing small shops, which recall the general store of an earlier time. There the proprietor knew his customers well. He wisely attended closely to their opinions, suggestions, and complaints, and developed his business in light of what he learned. In today’s small stores, the possibility of such interchanges remains, interactions that benefit customer and owner alike. Less happily, the technology that increasingly mediates relations between large companies and their customers prevents such conversations, to the detriment of both.

A story comes to us as a new sense
So says the poet W. S. Merwin. At the counter, conversation with a customer may bring the owner a new perspective on the business. The interplay of empathy and imagination makes storytelling so potent. Emotional centers deep in our brains engender empathy, which two hundred years ago, Adam Smith characterized as “pity for the sorrowful, anguish for the miserable, joy for the successful.” Our highly developed imagination, as J. K. Rowling recently said, “is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” Storytelling entwines empathy and imagination to put the shop owner into the customer’s shoes, giving her a vantage point on her business not to be found in the pale abstractions of market research reports and sales analyses so favored by large companies today.

Not only can we imagine the circumstances of others, we have as well an insatiable desire to do so. Millions of years of natural selection forged our remarkable human sociability, our deep and nuanced involvement with one another. Shared narratives preserved vital practical knowledge, guided behavior and by their recounting, bound groups together. When one hundred years ago Joseph Conrad claimed “the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom: to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition—and, therefore, more permanently enduring,” he might have been speaking as an evolutionary psychologist.

We have inherited from our ancient ancestors a hunger for stories and an irresistible urge to tell them. Our devotion to novels, movies, television shows, and now the Internet proves how eager we are to join the lives of others real and imagined. We even tell stories to ourselves. Gossip still serves its ancient ends of monitoring group activity, maintaining hierarchy and promoting bonding, but we so enjoy imagining the lives of others, we gossip about people we don’t know, inventing their stories for our own pleasure.

Who's getting it right?
Five companies using customer stories to their advantage

At Ritz-Carlton, senior management promotes the sharing of customer stories at regular employee gatherings in 21 countries around the world. So-called ‘Wow’ stories foster emotional connections between staff and customers.

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 stories. At staff meetings, he asked: “What are you learning about customers? What are they saying out there?” Reflection on the stories gathered by his management team helped Gerstner galvanize new thinking about the relationship of IBM to its customers.

When Lego’s new robotic toy known as Mindstorms was unsuccessful and the company faced liquidation, management turned to its loyal customers, who worked with the company for 14 months as unpaid volunteers in the redesign and, after the re-launch, took the lead in informing other Lego fans through the Internet. Mindstorms went on to become a major market success. Deep customer involvement has since become integral to Lego’s way of doing business.

Harley Davidson
CEO Vaughn Beals 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 during which they hear stories and develop better ideas for building better motorcycles.

My Starbucks Idea website 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 company's response to the idea.

The ubiquity of storytelling
So naturally, we want to tell stories to businesses. We want to relate our experiences with their products or services and our interactions with their employees. We want to recount how their offerings entered into our lives, how well they served their intended purposes, or how they fell short of our expectations.

In a small store, our stories generally receive empathetic hearing. The proprietor who would prosper listens. But a century ago, small establishments, which today might seem quaint and endearing, proved less than charming to their owners, particularly to entrepreneurs who chafed under the constraints of locality. When advances in technology loosened constraints on expansion, businesses eagerly reached for more customers than could be found nearby. While this expansion brought many benefits to customers and companies alike, it exacted a price by undermining storytelling and beginning an estrangement between customers and businesses that is worsening today.

The evolution of the Sears catalog is an apt metaphor for this disconnection. The catalog had a modest beginning as a printed mailer to advertise watches and jewelry to homesteaders who, following the westward expansion of the railroad, were settling on the American Great Plains. The catalog could travel the rails for a penny a pound to link the warehouse in Chicago to distant prairie towns. Innovations in printing technology soon enriched the depiction of products. A color section was added in 1898 to dramatize certain presentations, and in time photographs replaced drawings. For the many customers on the prairie, the burgeoning catalog served as a surrogate for a trip to Mr. Sears’ store.

Today’s electronic catalogs, grandly embellished by technology, stand in sharp contrast to those mailers of a century ago, but the purposes they serve remain the same: to garner customers and increase sales. A devotion to growth, however, has greatly lessened corporate interest in people themselves, because attending to the concerns of so many seems cumbersome and expensive, and with the development of analytical tools, unnecessary. In their quest for efficiency, businesses are using technology to shift customer support jobs to less skilled and lower-cost workers or to eliminate people altogether from those processes.

Falling on deaf ears
When customers wish to talk about their experiences with goods and services, when they want to tell their stories, they find themselves very far away from anyone willing to listen. Few of us have escaped plodding interactions with robots or humans acting under robotic control, all unmoved by our worries or needs. Websites and voice response systems promise support and encourage reports of difficulties or requests for information, then swallow submissions and return only empty promises of action. Interactions with customers are reduced to the capabilities of the technology; concerns and calls for help must be squeezed into simple menu options.

There is no way for a customer to tell her story, to say anything that falls outside the highly constrained vocabulary of today’s automated customer service. Complaints falling on robotic ears stir neither imagination nor empathy. All that remains is a tedious exchange of some information that denies the possibility of true conversation. This devotion to efficiency has in a sense moved customers back to the prairie. Then, too, keeping with our analogy, business leaders seldom visit the prairie; they know very little of life there and so know little of the people their companies purport to serve.

Since its debut in the 1990s, the quarterly American Customer Satisfaction Index has declined for reasons that are debated, but we believe the technologic facades erected by big companies make them seem indifferent to product or service failure, ineffectual sales or service, poor warranty coverage, inadequate product information, and weak technical support.

Behind these walls, the company suffers from its inattention to customer storytelling. At its “counter,” front line personnel hear many stories that speak to the ways in which the business works. And on the tumultuous Internet, conversations are ongoing about its products, services, and prospects. Some stories should carry ideas to those conceiving new products, envisioning new markets or designing organizational processes. Occasionally, one might sound a warning. A few should even reach the executive suite. But an intense desire for profit has made the company deaf to what customers have to say.

Open for business
Why should so many companies be estranged from their customers? Distance prevented those living on the prairie from accepting Mr. Sears’ long-standing invitation to visit his company. But digital technology has remade the topography of commerce. Many of the same tools that have proved a boon to businesses have drawn millions to social networking, which is supplanting the traditional face-to-face community with fluid electronic arenas for gossip, preening and posturing and importantly for our concerns, storytelling. Now customers have the wherewithal to step through an electronic door to talk to the proprietor or employees of a company, to have a conversation much like those held in the general store of long ago.

Why not invite them in? Some companies do, but many proffer no such invitation. Instead technology deployed in the interests of efficiency bars customers from the door that is open to suppliers and distributors. Why don’t companies step out through the same door not only to trumpet their wares, but to also meet customers in the new electronic communities?

We believe managers of large companies should follow the lead of the owner of that modest general store by listening to what people would tell them and what they would say about their companies. But many executives feel such attention is unnecessary. Stories, after all, constitute anecdotal evidence about which they have been cautioned to be suspicious. Emboldened by digital tracking, which swells the grist for data-grinding mills, many business leaders are confident that they can understand life on the prairie without ever going there or meeting someone who lives there.

Further, the prospect of hordes of stories breaching company walls may be alarming. Even if most are dispatched at the front line, too many might find their way to the executive offices, filling an enormous “In Box” with querulous demands for action. Fearing this, companies treat customers like lab animals who Merwin says are “caged in numbers / hidden in plain sight.” Yet customers are more than patterns of purchases. When executives and managers lose them in a welter of abstraction, when they don’t hear their stories of pleasure, satisfaction or frustration with products and services, businesses suffer along with their customers.

The front line
A number of companies have fostered innovation and enhanced their reputations for service through careful listening to what their customers have to say. Ritz Carlton seeks stories that recount exemplarily service; Starbucks, ones that suggest new products and services; Harley Davidson, those that express the meaning of the bike to the rider. Stories from the front line are valuable complements to quantitative assessments of customer behavior.

At the front line, it is hoped that most customers will receive suitable attention. Some of their stories, however, will merit retelling and amalgamation with other narratives to set managers on the path to new thinking about the company’s offerings or its ways of working. Of course, it is a rare customer who is a good storyteller, who can frame an experience like a fable focused on essential points and stripped of distracting peripheral information. All of us, however, know how to engage a storyteller with questions, observations, and even challenges to call forth segments of story line and set its meaning in the current context.

The robotic systems that front so many companies neither share experiences with customers nor care in the least for the success of the company. Humans, however, do both. At Levi Strauss more than 8,000 employees have been trained as amateur ethnographers to help customers tell their stories and to learn from what they say. Retellings of selected stories in reports to management have been important in reinventing market research.

Even an old company can follow this path. Fiskars Corporation, a 360-year-old Finnish firm, produces ergonomic scissors widely used by ‘crafters’ passionately involved with scrapbooking. To solidify its relationship with crafters, the company created the ‘Fiskateers’ Internet community in which customers join with product engineers and developers to share stories, answer questions, find solutions to problems, and critique designs.

Better for customers, better for companies
In contrast to businesses that want technology to simplify and streamline transactions, customers want it to enrich interactions. Imagination and empathy have driven the explosive growth of social networking. Having so eagerly adopted its tools, customers would find it easy to interact with congenial companies. Chatting or writing about products and services is easy for Internet users accustomed to posting to blogs, Facebook or Twitter. And the digital accounts left by these technologies would give businesses a valuable record of customer perspectives, attitudes and concerns.

Social networks, then, offer appealing alternative communications channels with broad acceptance among customers. But companies need to open more ears to hear what customers have to say. This means adopting a new view of social networking. Instead of a venue for intensified advertising, the Internet should be understood as a setting for conversation and collaboration. The same social networking that gives voice to countless Internet users can enable employees and even executives to listen and respond to them.

With these tools, those who build a company’s products, provide its services, set its directions, and govern its practices can meet customers in electronic analogs of face-to-face conversations. An active, empathetic involvement in conversations outside narrow "official" company communication channels can promote new understanding of customers within the business and better prepare employees to act on their behalf.

Dr. G. Anthony Gorry is the Friedkin Professor of Management and Professor of Computer Science at Rice University where he is also the Director of the Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning. He is an Adjunct Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and a director of the W. M. Keck Center for Interdisciplinary Bioscience Training, a collaborative program of six institutions in the Greater Houston area. Dr. Robert A. Westbrook is the William Alexander Kirkland Professor of Business. He has been a full-time member of the marketing faculty group in the Jones School since 1989.

The four papers on which this article is based emerged from conversations Tony Gorry and Bob Westbrook had, comparing their consulting experiences in different organizations at different times. The papers extended their conversation to a broad audience, making frequent use of expressions such as "we believe" or "in our view." Tony said, “We were speaking from experience, not data and surveys.”

For more complete discussion of the issues raised here, see their publications:

  • G. Anthony Gorry and Robert A. Westbrook. 2012. “Customers, Knowledge Management, and Intellectual Capital.” Knowledge Management Research and Practice, 11, 92–97.
  • G. Anthony Gorry and Robert A. Westbrook. 2011. “Can You Hear Me Now? Learning from Customer Stories.” Business Horizons, 54: 575–584.
  • G. Anthony Gorry and Robert A. Westbrook. 2010. “Once More with Feeling: Empathy, Technology and Customer Care.” Business Horizons, 54: 125–134.
  • G. Anthony Gorry and Robert A. Westbrook. 2009. "Winning the Internet Confidence Game." Corporate Reputation Review, 12 (3; Fall), 195–203.