Who Ate the Oreos?

By Suzanne Lentz


Better understand your customer to create more valuable experiences

Most organizations only know their customer in the most formal business context. They know how many savings accounts and IRAs their high-net worth clients have. They can tell you what social services a single parent accessed in the past 18 months. They easily rattle off the top 10 markets for holistic veterinary care and the average spending per pet. The purchase history, the market data, the loyalty data — it’s all there.

What companies don’t know about their customers are the details that nurture relationships. After all, customers are people first and customers second. They are emotional beings whose behaviors and decisions are shaped by millions of past and present inputs that a business has little control over. What drives these customers? What inspires them? What are their good habits — and the bad ones that they’re trying to break? Are they creators, critics, collectors, joiners, or spectators? Do you know where they go and at what times? Do you know where they want to go, and at what time? What delights them, and when? What keeps them awake at night? What are their needs and wants?

It’s interesting to recognize that we rely on these behavioral insights in our personal relationships. Sandy knows that her sister would rather eat cheap Mexican food than go to the new hip restaurant for dinner. Peter gets that his tennis partner is very particular about the brand of tennis ball he uses during matches. Consider how this information influences the decisions Sandra and Peter make — and the fact that these actions might even be counter to their own personal tastes and desires.

Of course, it’s not possible for organizations to know customers as intimately as people know their friends and family. But the point is that you can’t truly bond with customers unless you invest time in getting to know who they are outside of their account or order number.

Only then can you deliver experiences that speak to the problems your customers — real people — are facing. But where do you start? With research, of course!

Understanding your customer doesn’t take years, months, or even days.

There’s no substitute for actually talking to real people about what they do and why. To better understand the behavior of your customers, go “into the field” to observe a group of current customers or the market in its “natural state.” Go on weekly shopping trips with customers. Witness surgical procedures live. Sit with call center reps to learn what they encounter and how they respond. It’s not only crucial to the success of a project, but it is very impactful to learn how different people think and act.

Recently, my colleague interviewed a group of people on Medicaid to understand how they use their mobile phones. She was doing this on behalf of a Health Plan that was looking to engage this demographic through a mobile app. After speaking with them, she learned that they don’t like to use apps since they take up space on their phones. They would rather use this room for photos of their family and friends. Instead, they would like a mobile-friendly website. This is not the first time that a client believed their target audience would want it one way, but through research learned that they would in fact prefer something different. It is extremely beneficial to take the extra time to learn about your customer in order to provide them with a product or service that they will actually use.

What are the Different Types of Research?

Ethnographic Research - Rooted in anthropology, the ethnographic approach to qualitative research examines the “culture” of a business (e.g., Wells Fargo) or a defined group (e.g., Facebook users). The ethnographer becomes immersed in the culture as an active participant and takes extensive notes. Ethnographic research typically follows one of four methods: Participant and non-participant observation, semi-structured interviews, unstructured interviews, and collected material. Remember, you don’t need to interview 1,000 people to glean valid guidance from qualitative ethnographic research. You can learn a great deal from just 20 individuals.

Descriptive Research - Descriptive Research is used to understand the current state — the feelings and opinions that exist among the population. An example of this is polling to determine what percent of the population would take one drug vs. another. Here, the intent is to find out what exists, not the “why.”

Sampling - Sampling is the process of selecting units (e.g., people, organizations) from a population of interest (e.g. people who only use emergency room as their primary care) so that by studying the sample we may fairly generalize our results back to the larger population from which they were chosen.

Causal Research - Many studies don’t actually study cause-effect relationships. Like the forms of research described above, some only observe the world (e.g. what a person did when they first entered a bank) and some explore the structure of relationships — for example, whether there is a connection between an individual’s salary and their likelihood of becoming a customer. However, it is important that we go beyond just looking at the world or looking at relationships and start truly influencing customers. Through causal research, we can see how our causes, or actions — (e.g., programs, treatments) — affect the outcomes of interest (curing disease).

Another strength of causal research is that it can reveal a “default position.” Just because an individual does something in a certain way doesn’t always imply his desire do it that way. There may be no other option, or the alternative choice may not be known to the participant. Going back to Peter — his purchase of tennis balls is influenced by his tennis partner, who has a stronger opinion about it.

An example of customer data accumulated by a grocery store illustrates how causal research can be critical to exposing gaps in what you (think you) know about customer behavior. The store started a program to send information about healthier eating to customers who regularly purchased cookies. What they didn’t know was that the purchasers were not necessarily the people eating the cookies — many of these customers were buying items to be enjoyed by family members or at school functions. The “healthy eating” message often fell flat — or worse, turned customers off — because they were already adopting healthy practices themselves,or didn’t think they needed to.

Participatory Research - For many companies, particularly in the field of software development or medical device manufacturing, participatory research can be the holy grail of customer understanding and differentiation. Customers participate in prototypes and deliver feedback, helping to ensure your products and solutions meet market needs in ways not met by the competition.

Research Studies - There’s a lot of research out there that can help marketers and technologists better understand human behavior. Government sources such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; analyst research from Gartner, Forrester, and IDC; sponsored studies by universities and industry associations; Nielsen Ratings; all of these sources should be in your toolbox, because it helps characterize behaviors in ways that are useful in how design and communication is applied.

The Voice of the Customer is Nuanced

Research and good data tracking is key to personalization. All of your efforts must be empathetic. Think of your customers as people with concerns outside of your business, not merely as customers of your business. Find out why customers do what they do, their emotional drivers, behaviors, and intent. While understanding the voice of the customer, start small and keep adding additional information as you attain it.

  • Small research samples are valid — you don’t need to interview thousands of customers.
  • Map the demographic and contextual research against your own database and target market.
  • Learn where you can build upon experiences to align them with how customers think and behave.
  • Build solutions, services, or prototypes with target customers and problem-solve collaboratively.
  • Regularly, clean, manage, and analyze your databases.