Guest Column | September 16, 2020

8 Steps For Reading A Lab Leader's Mind

By Don Davis, Ph.D., president and principal, 5280 Life Sciences Consulting, LLC


Do you develop products for diagnostic or clinical laboratories, such as companion diagnostics, artificial intelligence solutions, or lab automation equipment?  Wouldn’t it be nice to know what your customers are thinking prior to developing and launching your product? If so, this article can help you better understand your customers’ perspectives. Although “build it and they will come” is a great line from the1989 movie Field of Dreams, approaching product development, product sales, software deployment, or anything that involves a customer without first understanding their thoughts is risky. In the case of diagnostic or clinical labs, these organizations are extremely busy, and knowing the perspective of the lab director, lab manager, or supervisor will provide firm footing to ensure product success.

One example from my previous life was that customers would purchase large-scale automation systems for their labs. Overall, it was a positive process, with some delays in the sales process leaving the customers’ perceptions neutral.  Once the purchase was complete, the customer would be excited, putting them more on the positive side of the curve.  Next, the customer would have to do some construction to prepare for the delivery of the equipment, an overall neutral experience.  When the day of delivery arrived, this was surely a negative experience, as we would cram their lab full of boxes, in some cases stopping the work that needed to be done.  We would go through the installation experience and again leave them with a neutral feeling.  Equipment startup day, applications, and training would leave the customer with a positive feeling due to the excitement of getting to operate the equipment and receiving the full benefits they envisioned. 

The journey map below illustrates the customer perspective throughout the purchase process.  With some planning, you can discover where your customers experience the highs and lows on their journeys. Then you can use this information to, for example, build excitement in the sales process and help the customer envision the future during construction and installation.  To overcome the delivery challenges, having a staging area and making sure that everyone is aware of the space needed will help the lab prepare. 

Customer journey maps are a useful tool for taking others along on the journey that your customer experiences.  They allow you to clearly illustrate your customers’ feelings to people in your organization who cannot take a field trip to experience it themselves.

Understanding a lab technician’s or lab leader’s perspective will help you overcome the stagnant or possibly short-sighted views of individuals who have not gained information from decision makers or users. A Japanese term in Lean manufacturing is Genchi Genbutsu, which means to “go and see.”  If at all possible, get out of the office and “go and see.”  Calling a lab director is fine, but you need to immerse yourself in his journey by going and walking the lab. Where are blood collection tubes, PCR tubes, or agar plates kept?  There are things that you can only see if you are there.

At the beginning of your journey, before you ask a customer the first question, you need to understand why you need a customer journey map.  Some of the examples I have seen from companies I have worked with are:

1. We are working on a transformation of one part of the organization and we need the customer’s perspective to ensure we are changing the right things. 

2. We want to build tremendous customer satisfaction with their experience with our company. 

3. We are building a product, and, from the start, we need the customer’s perspective to ensure customer buy-in. 

Customer journey mapping is not a simulation, and it is not you sitting somewhere trying to think like your customer.  This may be obvious to some of you, but I feel like it needs to be said: Get out there and talk to your customers!

1. Setting things up

When it is time to call a lab and ask a customer for their valuable time, why should they give it to you?  Make sure you are going to take action.  If not, please do not start this process.  It takes time and energy on your part, but in a core lab or large-scale testing facility, leaders need to focus on delivering results for patients, and you could be taking them away from critical work.

Try this:

  • Write out why a lab leader should give you their time.  Describe why you want to interview them and how you are going to put what they tell you into action.
  • Write out what you are going to do to follow up with them and let them know how you have used their input.
  • Work with the departments in your company (i.e., commercial, applications, etc.) to identify customers that you should interview. 
  • When setting up the interviews with the laboratory leaders, describe what is in it for them.  What are you trying to do and how do you hope to use the data?

2. Personas

Who in the lab is buying your product?  Who in the lab is calling in for customer service?  Who is it that makes the laboratory’s decisions about what is most valuable?  Is the laboratory leader you are focused on biased in one way or another from the start of the journey?

Understanding the personas will give solid input about the lab leader’s view of your company.  As you think about this starting point, stay focused on what your customer’s goals are within their persona (i.e., is their goal to purchase something to improve productivity in their department?  Maybe they are measured on good outcomes based on what you are offering). Understanding the goals of the different personas is key in this process. 

Try this:

  • Create a list of personas and validate that list with other people in your company.
  • While you are interviewing lab directors, managers, technicians, etc. about their journey, validate your list of personas.

3. Where does the customer journey start?

How does your customer begin the journey you are mapping?  If it is a sales process, how do they get in touch with the sales department?  What is that experience like?  Is it via email, a phone call, or do they reach out via SMS? Who typically reaches out?

Try this:

  • Ask the purchasing person and lab director to show you what it is like to start the process with your company.  Capture what it takes and especially capture the mood of the customer as they go through the process.

4. Follow the customer’s footprints

At each step in the customer journey, you want to gain the customer’s perspective on what is happening around them and the effort it takes.  What are the major steps and how are they feeling about each portion of the process? 

Try this:

  • Ask a customer to show you.  There is nothing more validating than seeing what your customer is seeing.  I am writing this while COVID-19 has many of us locked up.  Ask a customer to screen share with you.  Interview them with video and watch their facial expressions. 
  • Develop a high-level process map with steps and feelings from start to finish of the customer journey.
  • Have one person capture notes while another asks questions of the customer.

One of my favorite shows as a kid was Columbo.  For those of you who have not watched it there are episodes on YouTube and, from my perspective, it is classic TV worth watching.  Columbo was a detective who, while investigating a case, would ask many questions of a suspect. Then, just when you think Columbo is finished and is walking away, he would turn and say, “Just one more thing,” and he’d ask the most important question of all. 

As you go through your interviews, think of yourself as Columbo.  You are trying to solve what excites your customer about your company, and specifically what about your product excites them and what could be improved in their journey.  Use your detective skills to really dive into what is going on. 

5. Capture the detail

After the initial interview is over, walk through the interview in your mind to ensure you have fully outlined what is happening and when. 

Try this:

  • For every customer meeting you schedule, make sure you plan time to capture the detail after the call.  Schedule at least one hour per interview to think through what you just heard.  Write down the details of the valuable information you have just been given. If possible, have one person interact with customers while a second person takes notes.
  • Raw notes about the customer experience are what you need at this point.  Walk through the steps involved in purchasing your equipment, including the implementation, delivery, and final result. Did you get all the information they gave you?

6. Build the story

When you search online for customer journey map templates you will find hundreds of different ways to capture what you have learned from your customer.  In large part, these are summary templates for telling your story.  I use Visio or PowerPoint to build a customer journey map for a client.  No matter how you do it, there are a couple of details you want to make sure are included: a high-level process map, an area to talk about what you observed, and a place to show the customer emotion (Note: PowerPoint now has icons that you can use for all sorts of emotions). 

Try this:

  • Google customer journey map templates.  After you review a few of them, print out some versions that you like.
  • Build your template in either Microsoft Visio or PowerPoint.

7. Build what the future will look like

As you fast forward to the future, what do you want to change?  Is there one major pain point in the customer experience that needs to be changed?  Can you change or shift something that the customer is experiencing as a real downer to something that will end with a flat or upward feeling?  How can you build real excitement about what the customer is doing with you?  How can you make sure that their next step will leave them with a positive emotion?  If you could time travel into the future three years from now, what do you want customers to be saying about your process or your product?

Try this:

  • Hold a team brainstorming session.  What do you want to remove or significantly change?
  • Use this future-looking exercise time to develop the guiding principles for the future state of the customer journey.

8. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Your customer has just provided you with absolute gold: their point of view.  Too many times, this information is just shared with one department or, even worse, one individual.  In this step, you need to get out there and share it with people on your project.  To use Stephen Covey’s analogy of the circle of influence, you need to be communicating what you learned from your customer to your circle of control, circle of influence, and circle of concern.

Try this:

  • After building your story, set up meetings with people all around your circle of influence to talk about the findings. 
  • Start to build how you are going to put your findings into action.
  • Don't forget to circle back when the time is appropriate and tell the customers you interviewed what you have done with what they told you. 

Now that you know how to read your customer’s mind, get out there and give it a try.

About The Author:

DonDon Davis, president and principal of 5280 Life Sciences Consulting, is an expert operations leader with a 30-year career in healthcare and life sciences. After decades of working for companies like GE, BD, and Roche, Don now helps others improve their operational excellence, program and project Management, analytics and KPIs, and IT systems and infrastructure, resulting in increased profitability and improved ability to scale their organizations.