What teenagers teach us about customers

8th Nov 2021

Are any of you out there living with teenagers? I feel your pain, with one kid just moving out of the “danger zone” (ie turning 20) and another deep in the hormonal soup I recently had a flash of insight about what teenagers can teach us about how to manage our customers.

My insight came when news of a survey of teenagers came across my feed. Here’s what it found: 

No need to worry about your teenagers when they’re not at home. A national survey reveals…    They all go to the same place – ‘out’ and do the same thing – ‘nothing.’

Turns out, it’s a quip from children’s author Bruce Lansky, but it rings true. 

If you do have the pleasure of living with a teenager, think back to when your kid was a toddler. All you wanted was for them to go play in their room for an hour and give you some peace and quiet! Now they are teenagers, all you want is for them to come out of their room and actually talk to you! 

Sounds like customers to me! If only they would talk to us (i.e. fill out a survey), tell us how they are feeling, and tell us what they need … well, then we could make their lives into living dreams. Don’t they understand that we are here for them, desperate to do the right thing? But in response to our kind "how ya doing?" all we get is a slammed door.  On a good day, with the wind behind us and the planets aligned ,we might get "k."  (Translation for those who don't have teenagers:  "k" = “Thank you Mummy dearest for asking, everything is ok with me.” At least that’s what I think!)

With our customers, as with our teenagers, we have two options.

Option 1)  Just. Keep. Asking

In other words, carry on sending those customer surveys and hoping for the best. This is the equivalent of evening meals around the dinner table where we continuously ask: “hey how was school, what you up to, how are your friends?” 
If this option has worked for any parents out there, either you don't really have teenagers or you are a parenting guru and I NEED YOUR HELP!! 

Option 2)  Get Smart

Stop asking questions and start looking at their behavior.
It’s true what they say: actions speak louder than words, particularly with customers and teenagers (and I’m not just talking about the door slamming!). If we’re clever about interpreting even subtle behaviors, we can learn to head off disaster. 

  • A teenager example: A phone that stays in a pocket more than usual and a sweatshirt hood pulled up extra high could add up to evidence that you are in for a cranky morning with the potential issue being friendship problems.

As a parent we can’t resolve the friendship problem, but maybe a quietly prepared plate of toast with their favorite jam could change the mood, and even (if you’re lucky) get you a wave on the way out the door. 

  • A customer example: A drop in support cases and a couple of postponed meetings could add up to evidence that churn is coming. Maybe a thoughtfully prepared offer of help or training could re-engage the customer and get you back on the path toward renewal.

For both customers and teenagers, the evidence can be subtle or cumulative. You might think to rejoice at a screen free moment for your teen, but if a phone is a lifeline to friends, its absence could hint at a problem. You might think a drop in support cases proves that all is well with your customer, but it could indicate resignation and frustration. The trick is to become an expert in interpretation.

Look, don’t turn to me as a parenting expert, but I do have some evidence-based advice when it comes to customers.

Let’s stop asking, and start looking at behaviors. Please don't get me wrong, we do need to check in with customers, but don't push it and don’t expect too much - with the right approach and cadence they WILL talk to you. (Want to know how? Give me a shout.) 

Ok, so how do we observe customer behaviors?  Don’t worry I am not suggesting that you need some deep cover observational research.  We can just look at the operational data that already exists in our business.  Understanding how customers use our product, how often and why they contact us, what they bought first and what they bought next – it all adds up to a wealth of insights that we can use to predict how every single one of our customers feels – not just the 10% that complete the survey. 

The added benefit of looking at behaviors rather than waiting for customers to give us feedback is that we get on the front foot, we can nip those problems in the bud before they become disasters.   And honestly from my experience, this is something we can all do – we don’t need “big data” or have to wait for the “data lake” to fill, I have found that even with a very limited range of measures you can get a fascinating glimpse into the true meaning of your customers behavior.  (Want to know how? Give me a shout.)

Maybe my teenager/customer comparison has reached the end of its usefulness, but I couldn’t resist sharing one last quip that I really hope doesn’t apply to your customers. 

Me: “Have a great day, sweetheart.”

Teen: “Don’t tell me how to live my life.”

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