Know Your Customers, Really

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Well, Henry Ford may not have actually said this (people speculate it’s been erroneously attributed), but the quote finds itself in many product and marketing conversations. The quote suggests that consumers are naive, misinformed, and out-of-touch with their own needs, so engaging them in research is futile.

A more nuanced and accurate statement is that consumers may not always know exactly what they want (the solution), but they are often good at identifying their problems, needs, and pain points. My favorite example is AirBnb. AirBnb was founded after Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia realized hotel rooms in San Francisco had been booked up during an Industrial Design conference, leaving many conference-goers without a place to stay. The attendees clearly had a problem (not having a place to stay) -- and many would have articulated that problem well. But they probably would not have expressed a need for a website where they could book someone else’s room or air mattress (AirBnb). 

A successful insights-driven approach requires both  the right insight  (which includes  the right interpretation of the insight ) as well as the  right execution .

A successful insights-driven approach requires both the right insight (which includes the right interpretation of the insight) as well as the right execution.

Skeptics of consumer research will often cite moments in their careers when they let consumer insights influence their decision making and the decisions turned out to be wrong. Maybe it was a product flop or a dud of a marketing campaign. Yet the reason for failure could be attributable to either the wrong insight or the wrong execution -- it’s hard to know. 

Consumer insights may not always provide the silver bullet solutions you’re looking for, but don’t count entirely on your intuition, either. Our intuition is influenced by cognitive biases, or errors in thinking that affect our judgments and cause us to make foolish business decisions.

Executives, marketers, and product managers who make active efforts to get to know their customers often find themselves challenging their pre-existing notions about their customers’ needs, desires, behaviors, and world views. Many find it so valuable and rewarding that they integrate customer engagement into their monthly routine. And a lucky few stumble upon a powerful insight that inspires a home run product or marketing campaign.

Here are three ways you can get to know your customers better right away

1. Engage in Social Listening

Listening is often the solution when it comes to fixing relationship troubles in our personal lives or communication issues at work. It’s also a powerful mechanism to get to know your customers.

“Social listening” refers to the monitoring of your brand's presence on social channels, followed up by an analysis or systematic tracking process. From customer feedback and direct mentions to lengthy discussions about your industry, competitors, or related topics, social listening gives you insight into what your customers are thinking and how they’re using your (or your competitors’) products.

Engaging in social listening can help you gauge consumer sentiment around a change in your product, marketing, or operations. For example, when we did a complete redesign of Craftsy.com, loyal customers were upset that we had “hidden their classes” and “removed their wish-lists”. Combing the social channels where our customers conversed played an invaluable role in identifying their usability pain points and immediately generating fixes. Within a few weeks, we had restored trust in our best buyers and quickly saw a return to healthy levels of site engagement.

Brands can also use social listening to inspire new product development. One of my favorite examples illustrating the power of social listening is Sriracha Ranch. People were tweeting about the magical combination of sriracha and ranch, and big brands quickly took note and began producing their own form of it. It exploded. It’s important to realize that in a structured research environment (e.g., focus groups or interviews), these types of insights would probably not emerge. You can uncover a lot of “you don’t know what you don’t know” through social listening. 

Despite the obvious critique that social listening reflects the voices of a small and loud group of customers, it serves as a powerful complement to existing customer feedback mechanisms.

2. Spend Time With Your Customers

When was the last time you spoke with one of your customers? It seems like an obvious “should do,” but many executives, marketers and product managers fail to make time to directly interact with their customers. Doing so can reveal hugely valuable insights about your current customers (or the customers you hope to serve in the future). Take for example Jen Rubio and Stephanie Korey, who built the tech unicorn Away after spending hours and hours observing travelers, chatting with them in airports, and understanding exactly how they travelled and what their needs were along the way. They identified pain points and used these insights to develop a robust set of features that would make the travel experience seamless. 

Spending time with your customers doesn’t need to be a time-suck, nor does it need to be a big commitment. Here are two easy, low-barrier ways to get started.

  • Spend time with your customers in their naturalistic environment. Simply put yourself in places where they spend time and immerse yourself in their world. Listen to what they talk about and how they talk about it. Pay attention to brands or products they spontaneously bring up in conversation. And note any interesting or unexpected behaviors or attitudes they exhibit. Even if there is not a clear or immediate implication, it might inspire a groundbreaking idea in the future. Act as a fly on the wall or engage customers in conversation -- both approaches are valuable.

  • Call your customers. Getting on the phone can be one of the easiest ways to get to know your customers. Send out a Google Form or survey to make it easy for them to sign up, schedule a time, and give you their number. Before your calls, we recommend writing a script with open-ended, unbiased questions. The script is there to guide your conversation; don’t be afraid to depart from it if the conversation heads in an interesting direction. 

3. Spread Customer Empathy

Time and time again we’ve found that executives, marketers, and product managers find insights much more compelling when they can link the insight directly to the source -- the customers. Senior level executives often don’t have bandwidth to engage in customer research but are hungry for insights that will propel their business forward. So how do you bring your colleagues closer to the customer while respecting their time constraints? Two tricks:

  • Send Them The Proof: Every time you conduct a customer call, record the conversation (with the consent of participants, of course). Then clip the interview to capture a powerful piece of feedback and send it in an email to your colleagues along with a short description about why it’s important. Anything under 2 minutes will probably be listened to. This feedback communication tactic is almost always met with praise and appreciation.

  • Focus Groups. It’s important to emphasize how much caution we take with focus groups. Focus groups are laden with methodological flaws and can quickly lead to groupthink. That said, there is at least one reason to advocate for occasional focus groups: exposure. If you bring customers in the building where your colleagues work, you provide a unique window into how the people your organization serves talk and behave. How they perceive the world. How they interact with each other. The topics that make them enthusiastic, timid, apathetic. You can develop a strong sense about your customers and best of all, you can have your colleagues interact face to face with them. Many people -- especially in tech -- work at companies whose target audience differs starkly from them. At Craftsy, simply having our customers walk around the office reinforced to our colleagues that we were not developing for a 25 year old, but rather, a 55 year old woman who has a very different way of seeing the world.

Final Words
We’d like to wrap up with one final piece of advice. Getting to know your customers should help you build an intuition about them that is rooted in insights and observations; it should not serve as a means to support your pre-existing notions through confirmation bias. As you step forward with plans to engage your customers in research, maintain humility, empathy, and open-mindedness.

Tom AndersonBy Tom Anderson