Client communication Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2009
Ed Donnelly, CEO, DynaVox Systems LLC Ed Donnelly, CEO, DynaVox Systems LLC

It’s not unusual to find Ed Donnelly crouched on a classroom floor, engrossed in a game of Chutes and Ladders; he’s just gathering feedback from his customers.

Donnelly serves as CEO of DynaVox Systems LLC, which manufactures speech-generating devices for nonverbal children and adults and creates special education software and games.

After just one year in the position, he’s found that the best way to drive a customer-centric culture through the 326-employee company is to immerse himself in the customers’ needs. So he visits them frequently, observing how they use his products and learning how to improve them.

“If you ask them for the truth, they’ll tell you, as long as you don’t get defensive about it and you do more listening than speaking,” says the leader of DynaVox, which posted 2007 revenue of $80 million.

Smart Business spoke with Donnelly about how to make yourself an approachable listener who customers can unload upon.

Start with a theory. When I’m out there visiting customers, I go in with an intuitive direction of where I’m taking the company. I’m using the customer to validate or disprove that hypothesis. I have to start with a hypothesis, and then I spend a lot of time with a lot of different customers to test the hypothesis.

It’s especially valuable in the area of product development. You’re thinking of product enhancement, product improvement; you’re hearing the customers saying how they use your products, if they had a

magic wand, what would they do differently with the products.

Observe with authority. I’m watching to see how they’re using our products, how they’re struggling

with our products. I don’t look just for the good. I really tend to look more for the difficulties they’re having with our products, how they can be enhanced, improved. And then I’m not afraid to ask.

You’re not just idly observing. Usually you’re introduced, and people know who you are. That’s a blessing and a curse when you convince them that you’re truly interested and you’re there to learn and you want to know what they think. You have the power to make it better. They will unload on you.

Learn to listen. Force yourself to listen intently for as long as the customer wants to talk and get full grasp of it. Let the customer say everything that’s on their mind and possibly go back and address two or three things and clarify. Have the discipline to listen and not try to fix it.

The biggest challenge is the CEO has to be a listener. And while it sounds so simple, there’s a natural tendency to want to fix things, to explain things, to be the CEO/super-salesperson. In reality, if you’re

encouraging them to bring up the dissatisfaction, if you are listening intently, if you’re not cutting them off and allowing them to just talk and talk and talk, you will gather multiples of the information you would have gotten.

You’re not there to fix it. You’re there to learn. Those are the challenges of the CEO: knowing when to fix things and when to be the listener. Be respectful. You’re not the CEO in that customer’s office.

Enter their world as an equal. Make yourself approachable, very human, very interested in their world. That’s the key, that you are genuinely interested. You’re the student.

You are the least knowledgeable person there. You made the trip to learn. Have the discipline to just shut up.

Dress to the environment. You don’t have to be in a suit-tie and cufflinks if you’re going into a classroom. You want to come across as warm. You want to come across as equals — dress and appearance and just a big smile. Be welcoming when they give you input and respond favorably to it. If you respond defensively to it or challenge them on their critique, it will probably be the only critique you will get.

Even if the customer is 100 percent wrong, don’t correct them. Let them go on. Maybe there will be a time for correcting misperceptions later on in the discussion.

Respond to their input. If you’re listening for 80 percent of the meeting and appearing genuinely interested, you might say at the end, ‘Let me comment on a few of the things that you said today. You brought up this, which was 100 percent correct. You also mentioned this. Are you aware that we have the following solutions?’

You have the opportunity, then and there, to correct some things immediately before your departure.

There’s a time for customers to talk, then there’s a time for you properly to help them understand the truth and the fiction. It may be going back and following up with a note or an e-mail, saying something

like, ‘It was great to spend time with you. I’ve been thinking about what you communicated to me. I have the following thoughts.’ But it should never be confrontational.

Set an example for employees. You’d be naive to think that there aren’t breakdowns in communication or employees that have just had a bad day. If the employees understand that there are disciplinary consequences to not treating customers the way that they deserve to be treated, that will filter through.

We don’t monitor calls in any wide scale. We do monitor customer complaints. We do communicate customer complaints to department heads. We address them and discuss them.

I’ve never found policing to be very effective. It really has to filter down.

HOW TO REACH: DynaVox Systems LLC, (866) 396-2869 or