Customers, Computers and Companies
How companies are missing out on the benefits of customer
storytelling and personal interaction.
By Tony Gorry & Bob Westbrook
In our title, computers stand between customers and
companies as they so commonly do in today’s world of
commerce. In digital technology, businesses have found
new ways to relate to their customers and to gain more
knowledge about them. And even beyond the rush of holiday
shopping, the Internet offers customers quick and easy
access to a greater array of goods and services than can be
found in local venues, at lower prices as well. Despite the
convenience of point and click shopping, however, many of
us find pleasure in patronizing small shops, which recall the
general store of an earlier time. There the proprietor knew his
customers well. He wisely attended closely to their opinions,
suggestions, and complaints, and developed his business in
light of what he learned. In today’s small stores, the possibility
of such interchanges remains, interactions that benefit
customer and owner alike. Less happily, the technology that
increasingly mediates relations between large companies
and their customers prevents such conversations, to the
detriment of both.
A story comes to us as a new sense
So says the poet W. S. Merwin. At the counter, conversation
with a customer may bring the owner a new perspective on
the business. The interplay of empathy and imagination
makes storytelling so potent. Emotional centers deep in
our brains engender empathy, which two hundred years
ago, Adam Smith characterized as “pity for the sorrowful,
anguish for the miserable, joy for the successful.” Our highly
developed imagination, as J. K. Rowling recently said, “is not
only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is
not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation.
In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity,
it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans
whose experiences we have never shared.” Storytelling
entwines empathy and imagination to put the shop owner
into the customer’s shoes, giving her a vantage point on her
business not to be found in the pale abstractions of market
research reports and sales analyses so favored by large
Not only can we imagine the circumstances of
others, we have as well an insatiable desire to do
so. Millions of years of natural selection forged
our remarkable human sociability, our deep and
nuanced involvement with one another. Shared
narratives preserved vital practical knowledge,
guided behavior and by their recounting, bound
groups together. When one hundred years ago
Joseph Conrad claimed “the artist appeals to
that part of our being which is not dependent on
wisdom: to that in us which is a gift and not an
acquisition—and, therefore, more permanently
enduring,” he might have been speaking as an
We have inherited from our ancient ancestors
a hunger for stories and an irresistible urge
to tell them. Our devotion to novels, movies,
television shows, and now the Internet proves
how eager we are to join the lives of others real
and imagined. We even tell stories to ourselves.
Gossip still serves its ancient ends of monitoring
group activity, maintaining hierarchy and
promoting bonding, but we so enjoy imagining
the lives of others, we gossip about people
we don’t know, inventing their stories for our
|Who's getting it right?
Five companies using customer stories
to their advantage
At Ritz-Carlton, senior management promotes the
sharing of customer stories at regular employee
gatherings in 21 countries around the world. So-called
‘Wow’ stories foster emotional connections between
staff and customers.
In his heralded transformation of IBM, CEO Lou
Gerstner charged his management team with meeting
customers not to sell, but rather to gain feedback by
listening to their stories. At staff meetings, he asked:
“What are you learning about customers? What are
they saying out there?” Reflection on the stories
gathered by his management team helped Gerstner
galvanize new thinking about the relationship of IBM to
When Lego’s new robotic toy known as Mindstorms
was unsuccessful and the company faced liquidation,
management turned to its loyal customers, who
worked with the company for 14 months as unpaid
volunteers in the redesign and, after the re-launch,
took the lead in informing other Lego fans through
the Internet. Mindstorms went on to become a major
market success. Deep customer involvement has since
become integral to Lego’s way of doing business.
CEO Vaughn Beals helped establish the Harley Owners
Group (HOG), which brings together Harley owners
for social events, bike rides, and community service
projects. Executives participate in HOG rallies during
which they hear stories and develop better ideas for
building better motorcycles.
My Starbucks Idea website allows users to post
suggestions for the company in various categories
and to rate other users’ posts. Employees acting as
Starbucks Idea Partners respond to the posts, notify
the appropriate internal Starbucks departments,
answer user questions, and keep posters updated as to
the status of the company's response to the idea.
The ubiquity of storytelling
So naturally, we want to tell stories to businesses.
We want to relate our experiences with their
products or services and our interactions with
their employees. We want to recount how their
offerings entered into our lives, how well they
served their intended purposes, or how they fell
short of our expectations.
In a small store, our stories generally receive
empathetic hearing. The proprietor who
would prosper listens. But a century ago, small
establishments, which today might seem quaint
and endearing, proved less than charming to
their owners, particularly to entrepreneurs who
chafed under the constraints of locality. When
advances in technology loosened constraints
on expansion, businesses eagerly reached for
more customers than could be found nearby.
While this expansion brought many benefits
to customers and companies alike, it exacted a
price by undermining storytelling and beginning
an estrangement between customers and
businesses that is worsening today.
The evolution of the Sears catalog is an apt
metaphor for this disconnection. The catalog
had a modest beginning as a printed mailer to
advertise watches and jewelry to homesteaders
who, following the westward expansion of
the railroad, were settling on the American Great Plains. The catalog could travel the rails for a penny
a pound to link the warehouse in Chicago to distant prairie
towns. Innovations in printing technology soon enriched
the depiction of products. A color section was added in 1898
to dramatize certain presentations, and in time photographs
replaced drawings. For the many customers on the prairie,
the burgeoning catalog served as a surrogate for a trip to Mr.
Today’s electronic catalogs, grandly embellished by
technology, stand in sharp contrast to those mailers of a
century ago, but the purposes they serve remain the same: to
garner customers and increase sales. A devotion to growth,
however, has greatly lessened corporate interest in people
themselves, because attending to the concerns of so many
seems cumbersome and expensive, and with the development
of analytical tools, unnecessary. In their quest for efficiency,
businesses are using technology to shift customer support
jobs to less skilled and lower-cost workers or to eliminate
people altogether from those processes.
Falling on deaf ears
When customers wish to talk about their experiences with
goods and services, when they want to tell their stories, they
find themselves very far away from anyone willing to listen.
Few of us have escaped plodding interactions with robots
or humans acting under robotic control, all unmoved by
our worries or needs. Websites and voice response systems
promise support and encourage reports of difficulties or
requests for information, then swallow submissions and
return only empty promises of action. Interactions with
customers are reduced to the capabilities of the technology;
concerns and calls for help must be squeezed into simple
There is no way for a customer to tell her story, to say anything
that falls outside the highly constrained vocabulary of today’s automated customer service. Complaints falling on robotic
ears stir neither imagination nor empathy. All that remains
is a tedious exchange of some information that denies the
possibility of true conversation. This devotion to efficiency
has in a sense moved customers back to the prairie. Then, too,
keeping with our analogy, business leaders seldom visit the
prairie; they know very little of life there and so know little of
the people their companies purport to serve.
Since its debut in the 1990s, the quarterly American Customer
Satisfaction Index has declined for reasons that are debated,
but we believe the technologic facades erected by big
companies make them seem indifferent to product or service
failure, ineffectual sales or service, poor warranty coverage,
inadequate product information, and weak technical support.
Behind these walls, the company suffers from its inattention
to customer storytelling. At its “counter,” front line personnel
hear many stories that speak to the ways in which the business
works. And on the tumultuous Internet, conversations are
ongoing about its products, services, and prospects. Some
stories should carry ideas to those conceiving new products,
envisioning new markets or designing organizational
processes. Occasionally, one might sound a warning. A few
should even reach the executive suite. But an intense desire
for profit has made the company deaf to what customers have
Open for business
Why should so many companies be estranged from their
customers? Distance prevented those living on the prairie
from accepting Mr. Sears’ long-standing invitation to visit his
company. But digital technology has remade the topography of
commerce. Many of the same tools that have proved a boon to
businesses have drawn millions to social networking, which
is supplanting the traditional face-to-face community with
fluid electronic arenas for gossip, preening and posturing and
importantly for our concerns, storytelling. Now customers
have the wherewithal to step through an electronic door to
talk to the proprietor or employees of a company, to have
a conversation much like those held in the general store of
Why not invite them in? Some companies do, but many
proffer no such invitation. Instead technology deployed in the
interests of efficiency bars customers from the door that is
open to suppliers and distributors. Why don’t companies step
out through the same door not only to trumpet their wares, but
to also meet customers in the new electronic communities?
We believe managers of large companies should follow the
lead of the owner of that modest general store by listening to
what people would tell them and what they would say about
their companies. But many executives feel such attention is
unnecessary. Stories, after all, constitute anecdotal evidence
about which they have been cautioned to be suspicious.
Emboldened by digital tracking, which swells the grist for
data-grinding mills, many business leaders are confident
that they can understand life on the prairie without ever
going there or meeting someone who lives there.
Further, the prospect of hordes of stories breaching company
walls may be alarming. Even if most are dispatched at the
front line, too many might find their way to the executive
offices, filling an enormous “In Box” with querulous demands
for action. Fearing this, companies treat customers like lab
animals who Merwin says are “caged in numbers / hidden
in plain sight.” Yet customers are more than patterns of
purchases. When executives and managers lose them in
a welter of abstraction, when they don’t hear their stories
of pleasure, satisfaction or frustration with products and
services, businesses suffer along with their customers.
The front line
A number of companies have fostered innovation and
enhanced their reputations for service through careful
listening to what their customers have to say. Ritz Carlton
seeks stories that recount exemplarily service; Starbucks,
ones that suggest new products and services; Harley Davidson,
those that express the meaning of the bike to the rider. Stories
from the front line are valuable complements to quantitative
assessments of customer behavior.
At the front line, it is hoped that most customers will receive
suitable attention. Some of their stories, however, will merit
retelling and amalgamation with other narratives to set
managers on the path to new thinking about the company’s
offerings or its ways of working. Of course, it is a rare customer
who is a good storyteller, who can frame an experience like a fable focused on essential points and stripped of distracting
peripheral information. All of us, however, know how to
engage a storyteller with questions, observations, and even
challenges to call forth segments of story line and set its
meaning in the current context.
The robotic systems that front so many companies neither
share experiences with customers nor care in the least for
the success of the company. Humans, however, do both. At
Levi Strauss more than 8,000 employees have been trained
as amateur ethnographers to help customers tell their stories
and to learn from what they say. Retellings of selected stories
in reports to management have been important in reinventing
Even an old company can follow this path. Fiskars
Corporation, a 360-year-old Finnish firm, produces ergonomic
scissors widely used by ‘crafters’ passionately involved with
scrapbooking. To solidify its relationship with crafters, the
company created the ‘Fiskateers’ Internet community in
which customers join with product engineers and developers
to share stories, answer questions, find solutions to problems,
and critique designs.
Better for customers, better for companies
In contrast to businesses that want technology to simplify
and streamline transactions, customers want it to enrich
interactions. Imagination and empathy have driven the explosive growth of social networking. Having so eagerly
adopted its tools, customers would find it easy to interact with
congenial companies. Chatting or writing about products and
services is easy for Internet users accustomed to posting to
blogs, Facebook or Twitter. And the digital accounts left by
these technologies would give businesses a valuable record of
customer perspectives, attitudes and concerns.
Social networks, then, offer appealing alternative
communications channels with broad acceptance among
customers. But companies need to open more ears to hear
what customers have to say. This means adopting a new
view of social networking. Instead of a venue for intensified
advertising, the Internet should be understood as a setting for
conversation and collaboration. The same social networking
that gives voice to countless Internet users can enable
employees and even executives to listen and respond to them.
With these tools, those who build a company’s products, provide
its services, set its directions, and govern its practices can meet
customers in electronic analogs of face-to-face conversations.
An active, empathetic involvement in conversations outside
narrow "official" company communication channels can
promote new understanding of customers within the business
and better prepare employees to act on their behalf.
Dr. G. Anthony Gorry is the Friedkin Professor of Management and
Professor of Computer Science at Rice University where he is also the
Director of the Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning. He is
an Adjunct Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine
and a director of the W. M. Keck Center for Interdisciplinary Bioscience
Training, a collaborative program of six institutions in the Greater
Houston area. Dr. Robert A. Westbrook is the William Alexander
Kirkland Professor of Business. He has been a full-time member of
the marketing faculty group in the Jones School since 1989.
The four papers on which this article is
based emerged from conversations Tony
Gorry and Bob Westbrook had, comparing
their consulting experiences in different
organizations at different times. The papers
extended their conversation to a broad
audience, making frequent use of expressions
such as "we believe" or "in our view." Tony
said, “We were speaking from experience, not
data and surveys.”
For more complete discussion of the issues
raised here, see their publications:
- G. Anthony Gorry and Robert A.
Westbrook. 2012. “Customers, Knowledge
Management, and Intellectual Capital.”
Knowledge Management Research and
Practice, 11, 92–97.
- G. Anthony Gorry and Robert A.
Westbrook. 2011. “Can You Hear Me Now?
Learning from Customer Stories.” Business
Horizons, 54: 575–584.
- G. Anthony Gorry and Robert A.
Westbrook. 2010. “Once More with Feeling:
Empathy, Technology and Customer Care.”
Business Horizons, 54: 125–134.
- G. Anthony Gorry and Robert A.
Westbrook. 2009. "Winning the Internet
Confidence Game." Corporate Reputation
Review, 12 (3; Fall), 195–203.