Are you hearing without listening?

We have all been on a very boring conference call. On those occasions, have you ever put yourself on mute so that you can get on with your emails while people keep blabbering away? And you get so engrossed in your work that suddenly you hear your name called out and you simply haven’t got a clue about what they asked you? So, what do you do? Do you apologetically ask for the question to be repeated, because ‘you have a bad line and poor connection, so you did not hear very well’? Or do you boldly attempt an answer and embark on a long-winded journey to try to take the conversation where you thought it should have gone since the beginning anyway? 

Most people would adopt the second approach and avoid showing they had been caught off guard – especially if their boss or other key stakeholders were on the line… you know what I mean… However, this is a classic case of ‘hearing without listening’. They invested their time in joining the call, but are not really interested in listening to the conversation. Other people are talking and saying things and explaining what matters to them, but they just don’t bother listening and keep sticking to their own opinions or jumping to their own conclusions. 

This is frustrating in all business situations, but it is borderline dangerous if related to customer insight. 

Danger no. 1: The ‘do it for me’ approach

I have seen many organisations progressing all their customer research activities by engaging external agencies, briefing those ‘research professionals’ to ask a set of questions to a bunch of the people in their panels and report on the results. Far too many organisations invest a lot of business development money in this and still believe this is the best way to understand their customers and gain balanced qualitative and quantitative insight, upon which they can safely base their decisions. All they want is numbers and quotes of some sort, and preferably to support the case they want to make.

Without disrespect to research agencies, many end up undertaking this type of work without truly understanding what the organisation wants to obtain from the insights – also because, to be fair, very often the people in the organisation who briefed them didn’t really know it themselves, as they were part of the Marketing department and were commissioning the research on behalf of another business area. In this way, like Chinese whispers, messages get distorted as they go through the chain of questions and answers and, without the benefit of contextual understanding and clarity of focus, the end result is either too generic or totally inaccurate. A professionally looking, glossy and extremely long PowerPoint pack of numbers and quotes and bold statements about what customers said.

But what are the key messages? What are the most important things? Where the researchers able to use layering techniques appropriately to progressively take customers beyond their first rationalised answer to what actually lies underneath, to those deeper and more insightful motivators and drivers?

Danger no. 2: The ‘I already know I’m right’ attitude

Even more organisations use external customer research to simply validate the conclusions they had already reached internally, because ‘they know their business and what their customers want’, since ‘they have been in the sector for years and know it inside-out’. These are the people that, in the name of working fast and in agile way, have already developed plans and prototypes and go out to customers to simply ask them whether they like what they have created. The ‘here is one I have prepared earlier’ scenario. They had already baked the chocolate cake using their own recipe, without really checking first whether customers actually like chocolate.

Whether it is used for needs validation or user testing, this post-factum research tends to be a shallow exercise. Questions are structured to lead customers to specific answers. Tests are out of context and focused primarily on the functional elements of the customer experience. The interviewees are not truly a representative sample of the target audience or broader customer base, but part of pre-set consumer panels. 

Danger no. 3: The tick box exercise

Other organisations almost see customer research as a necessary evil. It simply needs to provide the tick in the ‘customer’ box, so that they can say that they spoke to customers and therefore gain their right of transit to the next governance stage. It doesn't matter much which customers, how many or asking what… as long as the agency gets it done.

But what is the problem?

So what’s the problem? Customer research is useful nonetheless, right?

But in most cases, this type of research is not really insightful. It does not help the organisation to learn more than what employees already know, nor it unleashes true creativity and innovation.

The result is that organisations end up going in an internally-set direction of transformation or proposition development, which may not be the best way to address those deeper or unmet customer needs and preferences – and therefore, in the long run, it impacts the ability to achieve true competitive differentiation and sustainable value growth.

This is because, very often, what customers say in answer to research questions is not really equivalent to what they really think and feel. What matters the most to customers doesn’t surface immediately through a structured questionnaire or leading prompts. It requires digging deeper and involving customers in more contextual discussions to help them move away from the immediate logic-driven answer to a question, and therefore reach the deeper and richer layers of inner motivators and emotional drivers which would otherwise remain unsurfaced, hidden.  

So, is customer insight unnecessary?

Absolutely not! Customer insight is the essential starting point of any customer-led strategic or design work. Without understanding what customers truly need and what drives their behaviours and their decisions, it would just be a waste of time. Only a deep understanding of the real drivers of the customer experience will enable effective customer experience transformation. 

What I’m saying is that I am sceptical about relying exclusively on traditional customer research techniques, and indeed my strong preference is for involving customers directly in immersion and design activities, bringing them to the heart of the organisation to progressively understand their expectations and explore their experiential perception, as well as to co-ideate and co-design solutions together. 

Stop throwing away money on research agencies who do not understand what you are trying to achieve. Stop testing with customers solutions you have already built based on your opinion of what they need. Stop using customer research only as a tick-box exercise to pass your project through governance gateways.

There is nothing more powerful and more insightful than working directly with customers. And I would add, also more rewarding and enjoyable.

Start to speak to your customers directly. Observe what they do and how they react when they interact with your products and services. Engage them in your transformation activities. I am always amazed at the value these approaches generate. And even more amazed at how willing and insightful customers can be when they have the opportunity to get involved in this way. Independently on their age, background, preferences or individual circumstances, people are generally happy to share their experiences, reveal their preferences and life aspirations, and help explore options to improve things. 

When was the last time you spoke to your customers?

Get I touch today to discuss how I can help you generate deeper and more meaningful customer insights to support your business transformation.