How do you recognize the weak signals in your business?

Have you heard the story about the boiling frog? As told in Wikipedia, it goes like this:

If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.

The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that rise gradually.

Sadly, when it comes to the customer experience, organizations are the boiling frog, frantically and reactively trying to get out of hot water with their customers. The key here is that they’re being reactive. It’s too late. The water is already boiling; they’re about to be cooked.

On the other hand, that slow boil, those threats that rise gradually? Those are also known as “weak signals.” They are everywhere, and the trick is often knowing which ones to act on. It’s important to be aware of them, to keep track of them, to understand them, and then to know when to act on them. Pay close attention to weak signals heard or seen about products, services, or markets that don’t yet exist. (Have you ever said, “I wish someone made a product that did X?” or “Why can’t this product do X?”) The key here is that weak signals allow you to respond more proactively, rather than reactively.

One thing to keep in mind is that weak signals may be subtle on their own, but they can often be/become stronger when combined with additional signals. On that note…

Where can weak signals be heard or seen? Many are found in the research you conduct every day, so you need to know how to spot them, but often they can be heard on social media or on other off-the-beaten path communication channels: snippets of information that provide some insight into where and how needs are shifting. You can also observe how customers are using your products or listen to their feedback.

  • Which jobs are they trying to do or which problems are they trying to solve (that no one else is)?
  • Have they started to hack your products to do something they weren’t designed to do to begin with, simply to better meet their needs, more efficiently get the job done, or do something completely different?
  • What are their painpoints with the way things are currently working or being done?

How do businesses get ahead of the threats? There are several ways, many of which you, as a customer experience professional, are probably already doing:

  • listen to customers, non-customers, partners, vendors, and other constituents
    • listen where customers speak, especially on social media
    • identify specific jobs to be done and corresponding unmet needs
  • understand the environment, especially:
    • financial implications, government regulations, and other environmental, technological, and social factors that impact your customers
  • keep an eye on the marketplace, specifically for:
    •  entry of new competitors or breakthrough technologies
  • watch for a decline in your sales, retention, or satisfaction, particularly as those metrics increase or remain the same for the rest of the market
  • be constantly gathering information about changing customer needs, as well as about other trends and issues in the marketplace

These listening/observing efforts may likely be happening across your organization, but it would behoove you to find a way to pool or to centralize this work so that you’re all on the same page. And then communicate! Share with the organization. The folks who need to act on this information? Make sure they’re fully briefed and aware of the intel you’ve gathered.

Need examples of companies who failed to listen to weak signals? Or who may have heard them but chose not to act? What about Blockbuster, Kodak, Sony, Sears, and others? What if they had known of looming threats ahead of time? Would they have taken the same approach, employed the same strategy? Perhaps, especially if they didn’t take the threat seriously. (Actually, I think one or two of them got hit over the head, never mind weak signals, but thought they knew better.)

This reminds me of that post I wrote back in July about customer experience fueling innovation. Listen. Innovate. Or die.

Beware. In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, weak signals become strong signals fairly quickly.

There are two kinds of idiots: those who don’t take action because they have received a threat, and those who think they are taking action because they have issued a threat. -Paulo Coelho