Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

27 November 2012

Thinking about thinking out loud

Clark @ 7:38 AM

This past weekend, we were doing some home work, and I had occasion to go to the hardware store. Several. Several times.  What’s interesting to me was two different interactions and the possible implications.

So, first I needed some paint.  The guy I worked with was quite helpful, asking questions. (Somehow, he always seemed to be up selling, but that’s beside the point.) Actually, we ended up short on the quantity of paint, but we got paint we liked.  What I didn’t get a sense of, however, was the underlying reasoning behind his questions.

In a non-comparable situation, we were having trouble installing some flooring.  The click and lock wasn’t going quite fine.  So, on the pursuit of a tool and some baseboards, I made an extra point of asking for help from the expert.  He asked some diagnostic questions, and proceeded to explain what he thought our problem had to be.  In this instance, I felt like I understood the process better.

So they’re not the same: in one case I’m buying product, and in another I’m troubleshooting. But what occurred to me is the opportunity here for thinking out loud to be a customer-benefit.  You’ve seen or can imagine the situation where the newer hardware store employee, stymied by the question, tracks down the ‘oldie’ who knows everything and gets the answer. It’s often very helpful to the customer to hear the oldie talk in a way that educates the youngster as well as the customer.

We’ve been advocating the Coherent Organization, and as Jay Cross rightly points out, this extends beyond the organization to the extended enterprise.  What struck me was what the opportunity might be if every consumer-facing employee in an organization was coached in effective ‘thinking out loud’.  There’d be internal benefits, of course, in having the wisdom of the ‘oldies’ available to the newer members of the team.  But the real upside, it seems to me, is in the benefit to the customer.  For one, the trust that comes from a willingness to share.  It’d be hard to do if the major compensation is commission, as you wouldn’t want to be sharing those thoughts (cue the ClueTrain), but certainly you could be talking about tradeoffs between solutions and clue in the customer on what’s important in the evaluation.

I know I’d be more likely to return to a store that helps me learn about the products. Solution selling could be more than just a methodology, in this case it could be a significant upskilling of the customer base (and employee base).  It’s moving the social network back to conversation, away from the media channels, but it’s a significant augment.  What do you think would be the benefit of coaching on ‘thinking out loud’ to not only internal employees but customer-facing ones?6


  1. Clark,
    I like the core idea, especially from a learning standpoint, and especially for the organization involved.

    My questions are on the customer side. First, it sounds like you see the possibility of the wide-open “thinking out loud” compromising some competitive/business issues. I think I see your point, although I think that could probably be managed by setting a clear focus on what kinds of issues get stated out loud. So, for example, we think out loud about the customer’s situation, and needs, and problem, and alternatives, but we don’t think out loud about pricing or competitors.

    The other question, though, is more of a case-by-case situation. I’m kind of thinking the way you are – I’d like to hear how the customer service person is working through my problem. Others, though, either because they have a stronger background in the products, or because they’re in a hurry, or because their personalities are different, may not want to hear all that. So the caveat I’d add is to watch the customer’s expression while you’re thinking out loud, and be prepared to summarize if you don’t see an interest in what you’re saying.

    Comment by joe — 29 November 2012 @ 5:59 PM

  2. Thanks, Clark, this is great food for thought. Now that so much knowledge is widely available on the Internet for free, we don’t need client-facing staff in the same way that we used to. If my vacuum is acting strangely, I can look up the user guide on the manufacturer’s website and trouble-shoot it myself rather than go back to the store where I purchased it. If I need to remove a tick from my dog, I can watch a really helpful video from YouTube rather than incur hefty fees at the vet.

    We need client-facing staff for the unique stuff that we can’t figure out for ourselves: the click-in floor that doesn’t click like it should, the weird rash on my cat’s leg that won’t go away, the paint that looked pale Post-It note yellow on the chip but is suddenly Mountain Dew electric lime green on my wall (true story). What we’re asking the client-facing people for, and in many cases what we’re *paying* them for through transactions (private sector) or taxes (public sector), is their tacit knowledge that isn’t written down somewhere handy. We’re seeking their breadth and depth of experience with a zillion past clients that we can apply to our own situation. If both colleague-facing and client-facing people did more of their thinking out loud and made it explicit or recorded somewhere that is easily searched, we can help ourselves to that knowledge by listening/viewing and saving the valuable interaction time for more complex or unique situations that warrant a person-to-person intervention. Does that make sense?

    Comment by brainysmurf — 30 November 2012 @ 7:00 AM

  3. Joe, I really don’t think it should be a problem, unless there’s commission incentives, and yes, I think they’d just have to be discretion (tho’ in general as a consumer I don’t like commission).

    Adam, like your paint tale, and the two before it are true stories from our experience! And what you say makes sense to me; thinking out loud is valuable in several ways: educating customers and co-workers, building trust, spreading knowledge. Seems like a great opportunity.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Comment by Clark — 30 November 2012 @ 8:29 AM

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress