Translating your customer’s needs into a product requires a well-rounded and practical approach that balances four key areas: engineering expertise, the ever-changing technological advances in the digital world, interpersonal skills, and customer empathy. Continually challenging your design team to grow in these areas should be part of any employer’s annual personnel developmental plan. The softer talents — interpersonal skills and customer empathy — are two areas often overlooked or valued as insignificant, however, they can have a profound influence in developing customer confidence and relationships.
If you have worked for large or more progressive companies, then you may have experienced the many seminars and classes on the subject of interpersonal skills, such as active listening, communicating, dealing with challenging situations, and negotiating, as well as handling written communications. If your technical team is not savvy in these areas, the risk to your business can be great.
For example, I knew a talented designer who was technically capable but had interpersonal challenges. On many occasions, he was needed to call on the customer, but his unintentional yet blunt technical approach was received by the customer as abrasive. For another example, I’ve seen a seemingly innocent exchange of technical information between a designer and the customer’s engineer become a basis to support a warranty claim later.
Written communication is even more important in the age of emails, texting, and instant messaging. With less opportunity for face-to-face exchanges to gauge how your message is being received, the more critical it becomes for clear communication. Your message has to be worded concisely with a single and clear message. The skill to convey a point, exchange an idea, or represent your company’s position on a sensitive situation requires concerted experience and sensitivity to how the exchange is conveyed. Effective communication is key.
In order to better facilitate these types of issues, consider designing a training experience for any technical employee who will be communicating with customers. The more opportunities you can expose them to, the better. Here are a few suggestions:
- Pair them with an experienced salesperson to make customer calls.
- If you have a service help line, put them on the call to listen in and see how a customer reacts.
- Enroll them in interpersonal skills classes.
- Let them participate in tough customer interactions.
- Align them with a proven mentor.
- Test their written skills, and if necessary, enroll them in a technical writing class.
- Constructively oversee how they respond to customers, proofread any outgoing communications, and make corrections.
- Advocate phone calls instead of emails or text messages when possible. The best approach is face-to-face. And follow-up with an email to summarize and document the exchange.
- Incorporate these developmental areas as part of their annual goals.
The quality of your design solution is directly proportionate to your level of understanding, responsiveness, and identification with the customer and their product. There is no better substitute to improving your design capabilities than to spend time with the customer and experience how your design is used. Develop the feel for how the design impacts the user and fully appreciate the weight of a product failure.
For example, in a former career, I designed outboard engines. These engines were used in third-world countries where people staked their lives on catching fish to survive. Imagine a single 7-meter outrigger canoe, 1-meter wide, 20 miles out in the Indian Ocean, at night, and in rough seas. If the engine failed, it would be disastrous. I was on that outrigger canoe, and when I did get back to shore, my outlook on how I designed was forever changed. For designers, your attitude and approach to a design can make or break the outcome.
When a customer problem develops, have the technical team on-site. Be sure to first develop an appreciation for what the problem means to the customer. Be genuine, sympathetic, and don’t assume fault or misuse. Use the interpersonal skills you learned, especially active listening. Spend as much time with the customer as needed, and don’t be in a hurry to leave. How the customer felt he was treated will significantly influence your future relationship, despite who was ultimately responsible, and create goodwill that can serve you later. If done poorly, it can have a profound negative impact on a supply relationship.
The development of talented design personnel is a continuous process and goes beyond the traditional academic rigors. Don’t take the soft skills lightly. Design ways and opportunities to grow your team of gear designers socially as well as technically.