Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays

BLACK MOUNTAIN,I’m taking a break from the topic of design in business that we have been discussing the last couple weeks. The reason is a combination of jet lag, a large and growing to-do list, and the strain of adjusting to being largely ignorant of how to do even relatively simple things. So I’ll take on ignorance this week and leave design thinking for a time when I have more live brain cells to devote to the task.

I am in Tel Aviv for a few weeks on business. I’ve been here before, but not long enough to pick up much of the language. At this point I am still limited to the basics: “hello,” “please,” “where is the bathroom,” “check please,” and “double espresso with a cup of hot water on the side.”

I am pretty adaptable, so I’ve settled in fairly well — I can buy groceries, call a taxi, and use the DVD rental vending machines scattered about. I’ve joined a gym and found a home-base café where the owner and servers know me and what I like. And, of course, it’s not hard to find someone who speaks English when the need to communicate anything of any complexity arises.

Nevertheless, even a little sense of adventure in a foreign country will lead you into situations where you have no clue what to do, no idea what is going on. You will be laughed at for trying to pay the equivalent of $0.30 for a $30 item, or you’ll stand helpless before the clear instructions before you written in letters that you still barely recognize, let alone understand.

A true commitment

It is a fascinating experience for someone used to seeing himself as generally competent and in control. Fascinating, but definitely unsettling.

It is less likely, however, that your customers will consider it “fascinating” when they have a similar experience attempting to negotiate your company’s service configurations, install and use its products, or thread their way through the customer service maze. And yet astoundingly often customers’ interactions with companies cause them to feel just as if they are in a foreign country — ignorant, incompetent, and helpless.

It’s not that the people in the company don’t care — they probably do. A large part of the problem is that, just as the typical Israeli native cannot really imagine what it is be like to be me in her country, not knowing how it all works, neither can those inside a company easily imagine what it’s like to be their customer.

There are plenty of techniques for trying to find out, of course, including recording service calls, sending out surveys, and so on. They can be useful, but they are not enough. Only real conversation with your customers can give you the information that is critical to your company.

Real conversation requires real commitment. It requires seeing the irate customer not as a problem to be solved, but as an opportunity to learn. Obviously we do not want to see frustration and anger in our customers, but when we do, we have one of our best opportunities to learn something about the company.

Fuel for anger

Frustration is fuel — it is what gets people motivated to contact the company, post on boards, write scathing critiques, to give you and everyone else a piece of their minds — the very thing the surveys and such are trying to get. Frustration can be a valuable window into the needs of customers, something to watch for and mine. Unfortunately, this kind of attitude is rare. In almost every case that I have expressed frustration with a service or product, what is at the fore of the interaction from the company’s side, even as they attempt to take care of the issue, is defensiveness. And defensiveness is, above all, a barrier to learning.

Equally important is conversation with the customers who are not (yet) irate. This is even harder. This is not a phone call by the marketing department asking how satisfied I am. It is the personal visit by the president of the company just to chat, even though I am perhaps not the most important customer the company is likely to have.

Learning your customers’ real experience is tough, but the potential rewards are enormous. It is the companies who truly understand their customers and the value they bring to them that ultimately stand out from the crowd.

Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at eric@deepweave.com

Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.