Hobo Signs: What Are Your Customers Saying About You?

By Prophet

When thousands of people lost their jobs during the Great Depression, many of them started riding the rails across the country in search of work and food. Hobos, as they were called, had been hopping trains since the 1870s, working as migrant laborers wherever they could find a job. They often traveled by themselves, leading to the inevitable problem of knowing what to expect when arriving in an unfamiliar place. Some cities might be welcoming while others might be less hospitable. A farmer might feed those who worked his fields while others might turn you into the police. A secret language of signs was developed that informed hobos about what awaited them. 

These signs, scribbled in chalk or charcoal, were placed on the ground, fence posts, trees, and elsewhere. The use of materials like chalk meant that signs could be easily modified if needed. A sympathetic housewife may have provided a meal to early visitors, but the barrage of successive pleas might have made her more resistant. The sign outside of her house could be changed to reflect the new circumstances.As suggested by the examples above, there often was no direct correlation between the sign and its meaning. Such a simplistic code would have enabled others to catch on too easily. To the casual observer, the signs were gibberish or graffiti; but to the hobo, they could mean the difference between a hot meal and a night in jail. And therein lies a key question for today’s companies to ask themselves:

What signs are consumers leaving to describe you? And how should you respond?

Consumers leave signs everywhere, particularly on the internet. Social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook provide channels for consumers to comment, both positively and negatively, about their experiences on a real-time basis. Blogs and YouTube likewise provide avenues for individuals to broadcast their personal opinions to wide audiences. For consumers, these ‘signs’ can have a significant influence on their purchasing decisions. For companies, the proliferation of signs is overwhelming, difficult to track, and hard to manage effectively. Nevertheless, it is imperative to know what consumers are saying about you.

Do they think of you as the kind person who will provide a meal and a place to sleep?

Companies like this are known for listening to their customers and anticipating their needs in advance. They think about how their business can help consumers, not vice versa.  Not only do customers keep coming back, but new ones also come because of the positive ‘signs’ others left behind. For example, Dell launched a social media website in 2007 that allows consumers to make suggestions for its products and services. In the four and a half years since its launch, 446 consumer ideas have been implemented (out of over 15,000 submitted).

Or do consumers view you as a well-guarded house with a barking dog?

Companies like this are known for creating the products and services that they want to make without always listening to or addressing consumers’ needs. For some companies it can be easy to fall into this trap. Decisions are made to ensure the necessary short-term gains demanded by stakeholders, but these can come at the expense of developing long-term relationships with consumers. Or perhaps one customer’s bad experience generated negative ‘signs’ that turned others away. In both cases, these downward trends can be reversed.

Toyota, for instance, has experienced a string of recalls and quality issues over the past few years that quickly damaged its reputation. In response, it established a Social Media Response Room that continually monitors how people describe the company online. The company also took proactive steps to engage consumers directly through interactive interviews with executives in which viewers could submit questions. These actions have enabled Toyota to rebound more effectively and swiftly than expected. Listening attentively and giving an honest, rapid response have been critical to their success.

Unlike the people from the Depression, companies today can understand the signs consumers are leaving behind. Consumers do not want to speak anonymously nor do they want to talk in code. They want companies to know what they think and, more importantly, they want a genuine response. Are you up to the challenge?


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