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Is the person who knows what your customers think located somewhere else in the building? If so, no matter how hard you work to listen to and understand your customers, you’re essentially ignoring them.

woman leaning over cubicle and talking to a coworker

In a piece from all the way back in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell investigates an important part of community: office setup. Gladwell speaks to Karen Stephenson, an anthropologist running a consultancy called Netform. She (at least in 2000) was on the forefront of mapping employee interactions and building an office around them.

“‘If you ask the guy who heads sales and marketing who he wants to sit next to, he’ll pick out all the people he trusts,’ she said. ‘But do you sit him with those people? No. What you want to do is put people who don’t trust each other near each other. Not necessarily next to each other, because they get too close. But close enough so that when you pop your head up, you get to see people, they are in your path, and all of a sudden you build an inviting space where they can hang out, kitchens and things like that.'”

It’s fascinating purely on an intellectual level, but for most startups you’re not so big or spread out that you have to plan strategic kitchens. Nevertheless, organically inciting these conversations, especially around customer feedback, is key.

Precisely because of their importance, findings from customer outreach are often presented formally at meetings. The problem with meetings is that they’re actually terrible places for people to listen and be inspired. Casual conversations are fun for people. The unknown paths of the conversation are an exciting prospect for the brain, and they get your thought processes moving. Meetings are a break from work. Often you know you’ll just be listening. It’s not a situation that inspires the brain – in fact, it’s basically naptime.

Want to have customer feedback be at the center of your development process? Sit engineers around the people collecting it. Make spaces where people feel comfortable taking breaks and having conversations. Focus less on meetings and more on water cooler conversations. Get people talking, not just pretending to listen.

Photo courtesy of  Jeff Karpala.

Photo courtesy of Seer Snively.

Evan Hamilton

About Evan Hamilton