“That customer meeting was awesome!” My colleague, a mid-level manager, sat across from me at lunch. He was clearly invigorated, adding, “Nothing beats hearing straight from the customer!” He slapped the table, punctuating his excitement.
I said, “Cool! I’d love to know more.” Then I braced myself and asked, “Where can I find the notes?”
He looked at me and blinked. Enthusiasm drained from his face. ”Well,” he said, “I assume someone else took notes.”
Bingo! His was one of three common and delusional beliefs I’ve grown accustomed to hearing.
Three delusional beliefs among attendees in customer meetings:
- “Surely someone else is taking notes”
- “My memory is reliable” aka “I keep it all in my head”
- “I’ll type up my notes later”
Let’s review each erroneous belief, starting with my colleague’s response.
“Surely someone else is taking notes”
My colleague may as well have said, “I believe magical minion secretaries take notes in every meeting.”
In my experience, everyone assumes someone else is taking notes, but in the absence of clear role-assignments, no one is taking notes. Perhaps such people suffer from ‘it is beneath me syndrome‘, or ‘its not my problem syndrome‘. Whatever the reason, chances are, if you don’t know who the note-taker is, no one is.
It hasn’t been since the era of Mad Men, when creative executives had their girls in every meeting, that one could safely assume notes were being taken. I’ve worked in the semiconductor industry since 1996, and in all that time, I’ve not once seen someone’s aid taking notes in a meeting. So, the idea that magical minions or secretaries are taking notes, in the modern day, is delusional.
Next up is my personal favorite of the three common delusions.
“I keep it all in my head”
Imagine our friend pointing to his head while saying, “I keep it all in my head,” all while his expression belies the fact that he doesn’t believe what the words falling from his mouth. He believes that his mind is a reliable and searchable storage device. And he’s wrong.
Science demonstrates that not only do our memories lose information over time, but our brain actively distorts that information over time as well. Furthermore, and most disturbingly, our brains can fabricate memories!
Information loss or distortion is bad enough, but it’s only part of the problem. Perhaps our friend heard some bits of information that are trivial to him. He quickly forgets them. But, in some corner of the corporation those bits of info may be highly valued. If they are not written down, they can’t benefit anyone.
Lastly, if the data is in one’s brain, there is only one way for it to be shared: through that person’s personal time and effort. Think about yourself in this position. Do you really want to be the on-demand server for distributing customer comments to the wider organization? You may be able to act on the information. But when you ‘keep it all in your head’, no one else benefits.
Pro-tip: write it down and place in a searchable and centralized repository. It will save you time and bolster corporate knowledge all at once.
That brings us to the third most common answer.
“Oh, I’ll type up my notes later”
Ah, the procrastinators! They delude themselves into thinking that the task of typing up notes will stay atop their to-do lists.
Every day, the ‘type up customer notes’ line item drops down to-do lists everywhere like car-keys into a gutter; once they’ve dropped a few inches, they’re gone forever. Herculean effort is needed to bring the task back into the fore-front of our minds. This task drops so fast because, while important, typing up notes is rarely urgent. As time passes, other, seemingly more urgent tasks push ‘file notes’ down the list. It’s akin to living in Quadrant 1 of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, forever handling urgent issues, and never getting to the important long-term improvement stuff … like typing up notes from a customer meeting.
So what to do? It’s simple:
If people refuse to take verbatim, accurate notes, don’t invite them talk with customers.
If people in your organization think someone else will type up customer notes, that they can keep it all in their heads, or that they’ll (forever) get to it later, it may be best to not invite them to talk with customers at all. For, if no record is made of what is said, what’s the point in having the meeting at all? Besides, if no notes are taken, it’s hard to take traceable actions, and over time, customers may feel they are talking into a black hole, and stop talking to your company altogether.
Develop a Change Plan
If your corporate culture doesn’t value note-taking, and you feel people don’t understand the importance of accurately recording verbatim customer comments, you may need to develop a change-plan. Consider drawing from Heath Brothers’ advice in Switch. If you work with people who genuinely feel that note-taking is important, but just don’t know where to start, you may be able to change behavior by ‘shaping the path‘.
Shape the Path: Provide specific guidelines for note-taking. Here are some to consider.
1. When invited to a customer meeting, ask the host what their strategy is for capturing the notes. If they haven’t come up with one yet, direct them to this post.
2. If you’re hosting a customer meeting (did someone point you here?), assign a note-taker for every session.
- Tell each presenter/discussion leader/speaker to bring a trusted colleague to take notes during his/her session.
- Suggest speakers consider enlisting other presenters to be their trusted colleague note-taker. E.g have them swap roles “I’ll take notes during your presentation, if you’ll take notes during my presentation”.
- Tell each presenter that verbatim notes are to be filed within two days of the meeting.
- Tell each presenter how to take notes and how to file notes. (see next tips)
2. Teach note-takers how to take notes. Start with these instructions:
- Avoid bullet point sentence fragments (like this one, heh)
- Include date, meeting title, customer names and session title.
- Notes should be verbatim dialog reflecting what the customer actually said.
- Denote non-customer comments with parenthesis or brackets.
- Notes should be in a form that’s ready to cut-n-paste into a copy to send directly to the customer. The host should send a copy to the customer within a week or two of the meeting, so the best policy is to stick with the facts of what was actually said in the meeting.
- Opinion & commentary should be presented in internal notes – not included in the raw notes.
3. Teach note-takers best practices:
- Consider using a tablet or paper. These are quiet and less physically divisive than a laptop. The customer can see that you are actually taking notes (vs emailing or marveling over a life hack on pinterest, or who knows what else).
- If laptops are deemed necessary…
- Position to mitigate the screen becoming a physical barrier (it can hinder the discussion).
- Make sure laptop keys are quiet.
- Limit # of laptop users.
- Clarify to the customer that laptops are are open strictly for the purpose of note-taking.
- If you type up notes on an iPad or tablet, ask the customer if he would be comfortable if the conversation is recorded using an app such as SoundNote. This app magically synchronizes the audio recording to your typed-up notes. Later, you can tap on a word and the corresponding portion of the audio recording plays. Be careful. SoundNote is a great note-taking aide that comes in handy when you can’t make out what you’ve written. However, audio recordings are not adequate notes on their own. For one thing, an audio file is not reliably searchable. But even more-so, no one is going to sit through listening to two hours of grainy and poorly equalized audio of people talking about analog to digital converters or the cost per layer of PCBs.
4. Teach note-takers how to submit notes. Create a repository to which they can easily send their notes (more to be posted on this later). The alignment director should think this process through carefully. Things to consider are
- how to best facilitate distribution of notes internally
- what form the notes should be in to make it as easy as possible to clean up
- what format facilitates sending to the customer within a week or two of the meeting.
- how to store so that they are searchable
- permissions and access
In the end, unless meeting notes are captured, you would be better off not having alignment meetings at all. After months elapse, memories of meeting details erode, and story retellings warp like half-baked shrinky dinks. Worse still, corporate knowledge stagnates, and (though beyond the scope of this post -but for now trust me on this…), confirmation bias can flourish.
Training Training Training
In the absence of training, mass delusion makes customer meetings counter productive. With training, a culture of note-taking culture can take root. Then, next time you ask an excited colleague, “where are the notes?” he can point you to the repository without batting an eye. “They’re in there!”