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For Better Applications, Listen to What Your Customers Say


When I go to Starbucks for a cup of tea, I’m always asked what size tea I want. At first I didn’t want to spend time remembering Startbucks’ silly jargon for the different sizes, and I tried to tell them “small” or “medium”; but then I found they would repeat “tall” and “grande” back at me and expect me to parrot the words back at them. I realize that the people behind the counter are only doing their job, but frankly I always try to get tea elsewhere rather than put up with this rather annoying Starbucks marketing trick.

What about your company? Do you expect your customers to learn how to speak to you, or are you responsible for listening to them? Almost every company develops an internal jargon, but that jargon can cause real trouble if you start using it to talk to customers.

Let me give you an example of a poorly-designed telephone application. A few years back I called a local hospital to check up on a bill. I got their automated billing system, and that’s where the fun began. “Please enter your group number. The group number is the two digits to the right of the dash in your account number.” This announcement was so wrong in so many ways that I can’t begin to recite them all, but here’s the summary:

  • Trying to teach me their internal jargon (“group number”) was a huge mistake;
  • They could have just asked for the entire account number and sorted out what they needed without getting me involved;
  • I was so bemused and flustered by the directions that I entered the digits to the left of the dash, and that was that for the phone call.

The basic lesson is quite simple. For a phone application to work successfully, you can’t confuse your customers and they shouldn’t have to learn new tricks. Your announcements have to use words that your customers expect to hear, and the choices that you offer should make sense to the customers.

How do you know what they expect to hear? Listen to what they ask and echo it back to them. If they ask for “a medium cup of tea,” don’t offer them a “grande,” offer them a medium cup of tea. They’ll be happier and less confused; and a happy, less-confused customer will use your telephone application instead of demanding to speak to a live operator.