Shut up, watch and listen

Shut up, watch and listen

Traditional market research – move over!  Organisations have replaced the annual pilgrimage to a ‘statistically significant percentage of respondents’ with new methodologies, which deliver more value.

Huge PowerPoint presentation packs are being shredded in favour of newer mechanisms that focus in on the Holy Grail of research – the ‘customer insight’.   

Let’s go back in time.  Back into the depths of your corporate memory.  Back to the day when the anointed market research firm came to your office to present the findings from the latest round of market research.

It was one of those monster PowerPoint sessions where you secured a comfortable chair at the back of the room, in anticipation of a snooze-fest.  Two-hundred and thirteen slides of charts, tables, segmentation bubbles and factoids.  This presentation had more bullet points than golf balls on a driving range. And that’s before the mandatory section titled ‘respondent comments’, another 60 slides with anecdotes (referred to as ‘customer brain farts’ by those that can’t be easily heard at the back of the room). And on the desk in front of you, there was half a ream of A4 paper held together with an industrial strength bull-clip.  You needed both hands to lift this deck.

The challenge with traditional forms of quantitative market research is that whilst the report usually makes for interesting reading, there is just too much data.  And technology has already provided us with more data than we have ever had before in today’s business environment. 

Once the final report is handed over, the marketing department feels compelled to pin its hopes on one or two actionable insights that it can afford to back. But picking the right insight from an avalanche of research inspired opportunities is usually a matter of good luck, not good management.

The Nespresso Pod proliferation provides the kind of insight marketers dream about. 

Qualitative market research into coffee has been done for decades and has always resulted in two key drivers of purchase behaviour – taste and smell.  Nespresso subjugated these drivers and instead sought to address the user frustration associated with cleaning. 

The explosion of home based espresso machines created little trails of coffee grounds all over the machine and the otherwise pristine bench top.  Remember the soggy mound of wet coffee grounds that fermented in the rubbish bin all day whilst the final remnants swirled around the bottom of the kitchen sink?

Nespresso solved this cleanability problem by encapsulating the coffee grounds in a pod.  Fast forward and it is a global commercial success. If you are in any doubt just ask yourself ‘is George Clooney my brand ambassador?’  

The past several years has seen an explosion of customer oriented programs which have threatened, and in many cases replaced, traditional quantitative research. ‘Voice of the Customer’ (VOC) and “Customer Centricity” programs abandon the concepts of statistically significant sample sizes and instead focus on the pain points or opportunities of one representative customer. 

The origins of these methodologies can be found in the principles of Design Thinking, a child of, formerly the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University.  Founder, David Kelley, pioneered an ethos of Human Centered Design underpinned by direct observation in order to uncover what people like (or dislike) about the way products and services are produced, packaged and supported.  The aim is to match human needs with that which is technologically feasible and economically viable for the firm. 

The five phases of a Human Centered Design process commence with Empathy. 

The objective is to immerse oneself in the activities of a customer. The research technique focuses on watching and listening to what people do, how they interact with their environment and your products within that environment.

Don’t be afraid of silence. This phase involves watching and listening, much more than asking.  In fact, there are dangers in asking the wrong questions.  How often do customers hear the predictable “Is there anything else we can do for you?” only to respond with the platitudes of “No. You guys are pretty good and I am pretty happy”.  This suggestive style of questioning is redundant because it does not get down below the surface to fundamental behaviour and drivers.   

Unanticipated insights will more likely be discovered by neutral questioning.  The new age, customer-oriented researcher endeavours to assume the mindset of a beginner. 

But recognising those big game changing insights is still not easy.  One helpful hint is to watch and listen for changes in user emotion.  Keep an eye out for the non-verbal cues in which frustration is expressed: the rant, the sigh or that hint of annoyance. These can betray the inadequacies of a product or service design that forces customers to create ‘workarounds’ to be able to use the product the way it was intended.  That moment is gold!  It represents an opportunity to add value by extending the design and thereby solving the customer workaround. 

Some will argue that qualitative focus groups and sales force feedback are great forums from which to extract ‘why’ customers behave in particular ways. Whilst this might be true in some instances, these research methodologies often miss opportunities.  The process is question driven, instead of being founded in the learning.  Social media listening provides more value in this regard, but again it deprives the firm of direct user observation and experience.     

The point here is really about efficiency.  Why conduct expansive qualitative market research if all you are going to do is look for a single meaningful insight anyway? 

Why not go after the meaningful insight in a more direct way.  Learn the fundamentals of empathetic interviewing, spend time observing customers, immerse yourself in their processes, SHUT UP, WATCH AND LISTEN. Customers are actually crying out to be listened to.

Who knows? You might actually learn something, save money and make a lot more in the process.

George Bej, general manager marketing, The Laminex Group

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