Picture Perfect


We often claim that customers don't know what they want, and then we expect them to tell us anyway. But does it make sense to expect customers to select from among the multitude of options when they don't even know what those options are? In this column, Naomi Karten recalls how an unfortunate situation led her to a new approach to identifying customer needs.

It was a travel experience that gave me some ideas about a visual approach to conducting needs assessments. I now realize that giving customers something that serves as a starting point can help them to identify and clarify their needs.

See, I was heading west to visit a client, followed by a couple of days of skiing. But this trip was not to be a semi-straight line from Point A (my home) to Point C (my destination) because a flight delay caused me to miss my connecting flight at Point B. The airline graciously transferred me to a competing airline so that I'd reach Point C faster than they could get me there themselves, even though I'd have to change flights at Point D. (This trip was not for the alphabetically challenged!)

"What about my luggage?" I asked the Point B agent. "Will it join me on this circuitous journey, or will it go directly to Point C on the next flight heading that way?" The agent assured me my luggage would take the same route I was taking. But (as you won't be surprised to hear), when I reached Point C, there was no sign of my luggage.

Clarifying a Passenger's Needs
Off I went to the customer service office to report my missing luggage. As I waited my turn, I realized I had only a vague idea of what my suitcase looked like. How in the world would I be able to describe it? But I needn't have been concerned. Instead of asking what my luggage looked like, the service agent showed me a chart full of photos.

Maybe you've seen similar charts. One side featured twenty photos of suitcases. The flip side had twenty photos of sports equipment as well as various nonstandard gear whose function I can't even imagine, but which apparently also goes astray.

The agent asked which photo looked like my suitcase. I scanned the chart; my suitcase was pretty conventional, but it didn't look like any of the photos. I told her so, but she was ready for me. "Which one," she asked, "looks most like yours?"

I told her the very first photo, top left, looked more like mine than any of the others, but still, it hardly looked like mine. "OK," she said, "now tell me how yours differs from that photo." Ah, I thought, this I can do. And I told her; mine was smaller, and it was red, not blue, and it had bigger wheels and more rounded corners. I couldn't have described my suitcase in the abstract, but describing how it differed from another one that I could look at was easy. She noted these details and then, using the other side of the chart, we repeated the exercise to pin down the appearance of my ski boot bag.

The agent said my luggage would probably arrive on the next flight on my original airline, and she'd retrieve it and have it delivered to my hotel. Paranoid (or experienced) traveler that I am, I chose to stay and wait for that flight. And I spent that time thinking about how clever it is to identify a passenger's luggage by matching it to a photo, rather than expecting the passenger, who is ruffled enough as it is at that point, to provide an accurate description. And how smart it is to display the most popular style of suitcase as the first photo, so that the weary traveler's weary eyes can alight on it quickly.
Picture This!
This seems like a worthwhile approach to consider as part of a needs assessment repertoire. We often claim that customers don't know what they want, and then we expect them to tell us anyway. But does it make sense to expect customers to select from among the multitude of options when they don't even know what those options are? Should we expect them to describe their needs articulately when they may not excel at the language of description? Is it wise to expect them to relate every essential detail, when the details they notice are not the ones we need? And does it make sense to assume that we and they (or any two of us, for that matter) attribute the same meaning to the words we use? After all, my big suitcase might be pretty small by your standards.

Therefore, instead of asking customers what they want in a transaction or report or screen layout, and expecting them to provide precise specifications, it might generate more useful information to ask, "Which of these pictures (or options, formats, functions, designs, layouts, or whatever) is closest to what you want? And how does what you want differ?"

Taking this approach would give customers an inkling of the possibilities. It would help them be more precise. And it would ensure that we're all speaking the same language. Or rather, pointing to the same picture, thereby minimizing dependence on ambiguity-tainted words.

I became convinced of the value of this approach when the next flight arrived from Point B. As luggage in every imaginable size, shape, and color emerged on the carousel, the Agent in Charge of Retrieving Luggage for Rerouted Passengers recognized my suitcase and boot bag immediately.

Ever since, I've been a fan of the visual approach to identifying needs (and finding lost luggage).

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