Get Into Your Customer’s Head

By Michelle Berryman

Who is Your Customer?

Understanding your customers is an ongoing process that takes discipline and patience. Far too many companies either don’t do it, don’t dive deep enough in the exploration, or do it so sporadically that they can not track trends in sentiment, need, or desire. They worry about spending the resources, prolonging the development timeline – or worse, being unable to respond to their customers identified needs. Nevertheless, we see time and time again that the more informed companies are about both quantitative and qualitative customer insights, the more effective they deliver great customer experiences that increase customer satisfaction and positively impact overall corporate ROI. The juice is worth the squeeze.

So how can you learn more about your customers? Where do you get your information? Start with the data you already have and then expand.

There are a variety of great sources for customer data and insights — some are freely available through 3rd party resources, academic studies, and government data feeds. Some information is curated by research groups, think tanks, and consultants and may or may not come with a price tag. Some of it you’ll uncover on your own through internal resources such as CRM systems, receipt data, SLAs, etc. Map what you already know about your customers (e.g., they are married, have a net worth of $700K and have three investment accounts aimed at long tern growth) to the additional data points you can uncover in order to help build a better customer profile.

Internal Resources – A fair amount of data can be uncovered on your own through internal resources such as CRM systems, receipt data, SLAs, etc. It is important to first map what you already know about your customers (e.g., they are married, have a net worth of $700K and have three investment accounts aimed at long-term growth), and then add in the other data points you can uncover in order to help build a better customer profile.


Government DataGoverment Data – Although it can be easily overlooked, government data sources are a great start to more deeply understanding your customer. Sources such as the Decennial Census and other surveys of individuals and households administered by the U.S. Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics provide valuable insight into ethnicity, family composition, education levels, household income, home ownership and sex/gender – as well as regional differences in these characteristics. On the surface, this type of demographic data may appear as little more than sterile numbers and statistics. However, if you delve deeper, you will see that they illuminate aspects of life that are not found anywhere else. Government data sources can help you understand where and how specific groups of people live, work, and play.

Demographic data is crucial in the development of almost all areas of business. If you have an understanding of pertinent information for a specific region, you can study buying trends, make future projections, and determine the proper marketing strategies to reach customers.

Original Research – Even after spending significant time reviewing your own resources and other publicly available data, you might still have significant gaps in what you know about your customers. Commissioned research in the form of online panels, surveys, customer intercepts, focus groups, or in-depth interviews can help you bridge these knowledge gaps and build a more robust understanding of your customer and their needs – as identified by your customers, often in their own words. Research allows you to focus your inquiry in specific ways, such as a lifestyle or use of mobile technology in shopping, investing, healthcare, and more. It allows you to hone in on areas that directly affect your brand, your product or service, or , your ability to support your customer base. It also allows you to validate ideas and concepts with your customers prior to launching new products and services.

Craft The Right Personas

Once you have a general sense of who your customers are and what they value, it is important to take the next step and develop a persona. Personas are fictional characters that represent archetypal users of your products or services. They’re extremely useful in framing the development of experiences because they force us to focus on the needs of people whose lives and preferences may be quite different from our own. User experience efforts can be evaluated and prioritized based on persona needs rather than personal opinions. Project stakeholders can ask, “What would this persona do?” rather than “What would I do?,” or “What would this persona want?” not "What do I want?"

In this way, personas also help resolve design issues and differences of opinion within a project team. They give all project stakeholders a common starting point for discussing a particular user archetype and how he/she may interact with a product, service, application, or website.

As previously noted, to the greatest extent possible, personas are based on research-verified facts and queries covering a range of areas and interests that may include, but are not limited to:

  • User demographics including age, race, marital status, religion, education, etc.
  • User needs (may be specific to the product, website or application, or more general and associated with job function, living conditions, etc.)
  • The user’s role (may be specific to the product, website or application, or more general and associated with job function, role in the family, etc.)
  • Personal and/or professional aspirations and goals
  • Daily habits
  • Attitudes toward technology, business, or cultures
Customer Journeys: Close Encounters of the Ordinary, Everyday Kind

Businesses tend to think about the customer journey within a very specific context of time and space. But it really needs to be considered more broadly.

For example, think about the customer journey of a grocery shopper. Stephanie is a wife and a mother who lives in Georgia. She starts a list of things she needs to pick up on her next shopping trip. This process might begin days before she plans to go to the store – she may not even have a specific date in mind. Her shopping list is built in spurts. She’s at the office and notices her stash of protein bars is running low. She makes a note. Her husband texts her a reminder to pick up beer for Sunday’s game. She adds that request to the list. One of the kids might ask for something for her school lunch bag. Stephanie might peruse the newspaper circulars and check her favorite store’s mobile app to see what’s on sale this week. Her inputs have been visual, verbal, online, traditional, and mobile. When she finally makes it to the store, her journey is colored by how easy it is to park; the freshness of the produce; the ability to get everything on her list without having to go somewhere else; the length of the checkout line; and the store layout. But the journey doesn’t end when she pulls out of the parking lot – she still has to get the eggs home without cracks, unload the groceries from the car, and fit all the items in her limited kitchen space. And then she has meals to prepare, lunches to pack, dinner with the family, a cook-out with friends…the food journey is a continuous cycle. Stephanie likely goes through this routine two to three times per week, every week.

On the other side of town, Bob has to renew his vehicle registration. Because he lives in Georgia, he needs to get an emissions certification for the car first. He stops by a testing facility on the way home from work and obtains the certificate. Once home, he logs on to the state’s vehicle registration site, enters his VIN and the emissions certification number, and pays the tax. Voila! His vehicle registration is renewed in less than five minutes (although still with far too many screens and steps). That task is done until next year when the process will repeat in much the same way – and since it’s been a year since he’s done this, the journey will likely feel only vaguely familiar. It’s not quite a first-time journey, but it’s far from something done by rote memory.

The differences between Stephanie and Bob’s journeys highlight the numerous considerations that have to be made when designing experiences. The customer’s journey might be simple, direct, and contained in a timeframe — or it might be a protracted event. It may be repeated over and over again, in different ways. When Stephanie stops by the grocery store for one item two days later, that journey will be unique, but similar, to the one she just completed.

And at any point in the process, the journey can derail. The grocery store is out of key items. Parking is a nightmare and Stephanie says, “Forget it.” The motor vehicle website crashes or can’t process the payment and the State has to wait another day for Bob to get around to paying his taxes.

Understanding the customer’s journey is as much about observing as it is about anticipating what could happen, in order to mitigate risks and deliver a better customer experience.

Never Stop Discovering

Knowing our customers, understanding their motivations and having good insights into their behaviors gives us a clearer understanding of why the customer engages with our brand — and the underlying mindsets, moods, motivations, desires, needs and aspirations that trigger their attitudes and actions.

Gaining reliable customer insight requires:

  • Capturing and maintaining customer data from all sources (internal and external),
  • Managing data and inputs across customer-facing systems and functions, and
  • Analyzing all inputs to uncover actionable insights that can be applied to the business.

When acted upon, customer insights have the potential to change your customer’s behavior — and earn and keep their trust and loyalty. Forrester projects that by 2020, firms that can monetize their customer data with consent will thrive; those that can’t will stagnate; and those that fail to protect privacy will wither. Data’s role in addressing customer needs for everything from security to value exchange will help reinforce the sense of trust that is so critical to the customer relationship.

Customer insights gathering is a continuous process. It is not a one-time project. You need to continually interact with your customers, but also change up the way you analyze the data. Slice the data differently. Test, validate, and iterate – with customers. Incorporate research into your process. Apply discipline into it. Review your strategy frequently to make sure you’re keeping up with customers’ changing lives.

Data, insights, personas, and customer journey mapping are equal spokes of an iterative, integrated strategy to understand your customers’ needs and deliver on those needs with the greatest level of differentiation, the best value, and the most engaging experiences. Persistent questions can answered with a high degree of reliability:

  • Are you selling products that your target customers desire – or better yet, love?
  • Have you confirmed the need for these products or services?
  • Are these the correct products or services?
  • Do you need to change or adjust your target customer(s)?
  • How do your customers feel during brand interactions?
  • What is the customer’s intent?
  • Is the customer behaving in the manner that they want to behave — or are you driving them into certain default behaviors and actions?
  • Do they need help?
  • What are they remembering about their experiences with your brand?
  • Where in their life cycle is the experience falling short?
  • In what area of your company do you need to improve?
  • Can you personalize your messaging, products, or services?
  • What channels do they use?
  • Can you surpass their expectations?

By taking the time to invest in understanding your customer, your products and services will better meet their needs – which has a hugely important effect on revenue and customer satisfaction.

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