Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Customers are talking: is a customer-service dialogue a story?

Some of my work recently has been applying narrative-sensemaking techniques to customer service dialogues (typically recorded phone calls), which is a fancy way of saying helping companies find patterns in what customers are saying about their products and services, and to use these patterns to drive changes that will help them sell more products and/or make their existing customers more satisfied.

This is a little different from the more traditional approach of eliciting stories via interviews, anecdote circles or web forms. In those circumstances, carefully-crafted questions help generate stories ("this happened, then this, and then this"). Customer-service calls are not elicited--they are spontaneous expressions--and don't follow the story format. They are simply two people talking.

So a question is, I guess, can you get useful stories out of mere dialogue?

In thinking about this question, I've been reflecting on the novels of William Gaddis, an American writer who published only a handful of books from the 1950's to the 1990's. I've read two of them, "JR" and "A Frolic of His Own," and both have barely any exposition at all. 90+% of the text is dialogue, barely puncutated, overlapping, and often confusing.

"JR" is a very forward-looking book about a junior-high-school student who speculates his way into a multi-million dollar fortune (on paper). Given that it takes place in the mid-70's, JR does his trading via the payphone in the school hallway. Today, he'd be on TD Ameritrade.

"A Frolic of His Own," written in the 1990's, takes issue with the (again very present-day) issues of litigiousness and intellectual property. In addition to dialogue, hilariously-deadpan legal briefs help move the story along.

Reading Gaddis' books is a lot like listening to those customer service calls. A bit disorienting or hard to understand, often touching, sometimes funny. Always humanizing. And always stories.

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