Today I am pleased to present another guest post by Sarah Simon.

Like Annette, I cringe at the thought of introducing to a business blog any topic even remotely associated with politics; however, I stumbled upon some advice from Colin Powell on generating reliable insights that can be applied to voice of customer and customer experience improvement initiatives.   

Love him or loathe him, these insights-vetting steps from Colin Powell can be applied right away to improve the reliability of the insights you share with your decision makers.

Following these four steps* when considering customer intelligence can help ensure the delivery of reliable, timely insights to key stakeholders:

  1. Tell me what you know.
  2. Tell me what you don’t know.
  3. Then tell me what you think.
  4. Always distinguish which is which. 

Let’s put these steps into a customer experience framework.

Tell me what you know
These are your facts obtained through primary research: surveys, data mining, social media scraping, focus groups, and so forth.  We crunch some numbers, run text analytics, or analyze focus group outcomes, for instance, and out pop the facts.  It’s our responsibility as insights professionals to share “what we know” about the customer with our stakeholders.

Part of this responsibility includes sharing bad news, as soon as you become aware of it.  Are NPS numbers slipping?  Are complaints up?  Do customers hate the new product features?  Don’t sugar coat reality for the decision makers.  They need clear, honest insights delivered in a timely fashion.

Tell me what you don’t know
I think many of us, as insights professionals, forget this step.  We are so focused on presenting the facts and so hesitant to confess that we don’t have all the answers, that we are largely unwilling to proactively say “…and here is what we don’t know” when presenting our findings.  It’s OK to admit “Findings were inconclusive,” if that is the case!  It’s just as important for decision makers to have a clear idea of where the blind spots are; don’t leave them to guess.

This is going to require a change of thinking, of looking at customer intelligence like looking at an old film negative.  You need to train your mind to think as much about “what’s missing” as it thinks about “what’s there.”

There is nothing worse than a leader believing he has accurate information when folks who know he doesn’t don’t tell him that he doesn’t.
– Colin Powell

Then tell me what you think
At this stage, we are isolating our key findings and stating our recommendations.  Here we are giving the “so what” behind the facts and figures.  Machines can analyze huge volumes of data, but a skilled analyst is required to tell the story behind the raw data and turn this data into actionable insights.  An analyst pulls in outside experiences, hunches, and knowledge to turn raw data into “ah-ha” moments.

Always distinguish which is which
You can’t make good decisions unless you have good information and can separate facts from opinion and speculation.Colin Powell

Insights professionals are deep in the trenches with our intelligence.  We inherently know the differences between “facts and figures” and “our opinion.”  Our audience doesn’t enjoy the same level of intimacy with the intelligence we gather.  Furthermore, we are trained to boldly assert our conclusions and recommendations.  Our audience can’t always distinguish fact from opinion.  We need to be clear when we are presenting fact and when we are stating opinion.

Lastly, here are two communications tips for insights practitioners and executive leaders to follow to ensure accurate, whole, and honest results are communicated.

Insights Practitioners
Practice responding to questions to which you don’t have the answers like this: “We do not have the answer to that. This is hard to do especially because, as Powell puts it, “You really don’t want to acknowledge ignorance when your boss is demanding answers.”  Do it, anyhow.

Executive Leaders
Practice not shooting the messenger.  It takes a lot of courage for your staff members to stand up and say “I don’t know” or “Your deeply held assumption is wrong.”  Set a tone of openness and appreciation for candid information sharing.  Failure to do so means executive leadership will only see what they want to see, not what they need to see.

Hopefully following these four steps, plus these two communications tips, from the military intelligence world can help you provide your decision makers with reliable insights for improving the customer experience at your organization.

* From Colin Powell’s Statement on Intelligence Reform (September 13, 2004)
An old rule that I’ve used with my intelligence officers over the years, whether in the military, or now, in the State Department, goes like this: Tell me what you know. Tell me what you don’t know. And then, based on what you really know and what you really don’t know, tell me what you think is most likely to happen. And there’s an extension of that rule with my intelligence officers: I will hold you accountable for what you tell me is a fact; and I will hold you accountable for what you tell me is not going to happen because you have the facts on that, or you don’t know what’s going to happen, or you know what your body of ignorance
is and you told me what that is. 

Sarah Simon is a career insights professional with 16 years of experience in the feedback industry. Specialties include VoC architecture, journey mapping, developing linkages to business performance, reduction of customer defection, results analysis and communication, with expert survey design skills.  She is the survivor of a botched early-generation “big data mining” operation and is happy to live to tell about it.