Despite little evidence of impact, each year millions of pounds are spent on market research, focus groups, and ‘coproduction’.
The danger of listening to customers is you end up focusing on wants not needs. Often what a customer wants is diametrically opposed to what they need – and want is often more of a powerful motivator.
To really generate quality insight you need to avoid five traps:
Customers Don’t Tell The Truth
The truth is that people lie. They don’t mean to, but they’ll certainly present an alternate reality where an honest answer might cause them embarrassment.
It’s the reason most of us tell our doctors that we drink less and exercise more than we actually do. We are presenting an idealised version of our actual behaviour.
There’s a great bit of advice in the Well Told Story podcasts where they relate the dangers of asking direct questions.
Asking an 18-year old male “when did you last have sex?” almost always drew the response of “last night”.
But asking the question in a non-personalised way – “When would you say your friends last had sex?” resulted in an entirely different response – “within the last two weeks”.
Asking about the behaviour of a person like you removes the tendency to present an exaggerated version of ourselves.
The Law of Triviality and The Bike Shed Effect
People give disproportionate weight to trivial issues and that takes them away from the issue at hand.
In his book the Pursuit of Progress, C. Northcote Parkinson describes a committee that met to discuss the construction of a new nuclear power plant. He observed how the committee spent the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself.
I witnessed the bike shed effect just the other day in Bromford Lab. A session about using artificially intelligent stock delivery systems nearly turned into a discussion about who was going to wash the vans.
We can’t help it.
We like to focus on the trivial.
Being Out Of Context
As Stephen Russell said asking customers in false settings is a poor proxy for actual behaviour or preferences.
Focus groups and panels are often wasted time as they take everything out of context
As soon as a customer is in your office – they are in your office – and that’s not their natural environment.
That was what led to the failure of New Coke. ‘Tell me what you think of this drink in a blind test in a lab setting’ is out of context compared to the experience of drinking a Coke in the garden on a summer’s day.
30 years later and organisations are still making the same mistake.
People search for information that confirms their view of the world and ignore what doesn’t fit.
Someone seeking to dismiss an idea they don’t like will seek out some anecdotal evidence of when something similar failed or went wrong.
That’s why social media is such an effective tool for group-think.
Liberal or Conservative we all get what we want: our viewpoints confirmed.
When making a choice, our brains are in comparison mode, which is completely different to experience mode.
And all the evidence shows we are terrible at making choices as we have a tendency to over-value the effect of small differences when comparing options.
We’ll almost always choose the house with the extra bedroom, buy the bigger TV or go for the higher salary. Your brain is (often incorrectly) telling you that more is better.
So if you’re getting customers to compare things side by side instead of living them out – you’ll get a false return.
As Philippa Jones has written, to fully understand what customers need, and how that will impact and shape operational improvements, we need to take a far more bottom-up, holistic and all-encompassing approach.
In other words, we get to the truth by understanding stories, by listening carefully, observing behaviours and not by ticking boxes.
Organisations don’t always value customer insight because they value predictability, they love perfection, and they don’t like not having all the answers.
If you really listen to customers and really observe how they behave – they’ll surprise you and make you question everything you do.
And most of our organisations hate surprises.