5 Reasons You Need To Question What Customers Are Telling You

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 ProgressC. 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.

Confirmation Bias

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.

Distinction Bias

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.

Why Living In Paradise Is Bad For Business

When you live in paradise - it's easy to get lazy.
When you live in paradise – it’s easy to get lazy.

Here is a story about what can happen when you don’t anticipate change. When you get used to things being easy for everyone. It’s a story you will have heard before but, like all the best tales , is as relevant today as when it was first told:

There was once a lucky little bird who lived on an island. It was one of the most beautiful places on earth. Not only was it beautiful – it was safe. Nobody wanted to eat the bird. Nobody tried to muscle in on the birds turf.

The fruit that the bird collected from the trees was abundant and delicious. After a while the bird stopped collecting the fruit , as left to ripen it fell off the tree on its own. Far more convenient! Why would you go chasing food if you can have it delivered direct to your table?

The bird became bigger. Eventually it couldn’t even be bothered to fly. Why would you? The island is gorgeous, the food goes down a treat, and there is zero competition for nest space. You’d have to be an idiot to screw this life up!

But one day a ship appeared on the horizon. On the ship were men and women from a country far far away. And they brought dogs with them. And cats.

Not a problem , thought the bird, I’ll just fly away – there are plenty of decent islands around here with fruit just as good.

But its wings , left idle for so long , didn’t work anymore. Damn it.

As the bird went along to introduce itself to the dogs and cats – it wished that it had never become reliant on that delicious fruit falling from the trees. Never mind, it thought – guess I’ll have to learn to fly again.

The island was Mauritius. The bird , of course , the Dodo.

Last week an article made me think of this story. It contained a quote that said an entire sector , Social Housing , could become extinct because of alterations that are being made to how it gets paid.

Many of you reading this don’t work in housing so will not understand the changes. So – let me explain in simple terms how this works :

  • Quite a few people who live in social housing get benefits for their rent. To make it easy for everyone the benefits are paid – electronically – to the landlord. It’s convenient , frictionless, and the actual customer doesn’t have to worry about any of it. (OK , that sounds like business model paradise to you guys who don’t work in housing. But stick with me….)
  • The Government is trying to get the benefit paid direct to the customer. The idea seems to be that people should take responsibility for budgeting and stuff. But some customers aren’t really skilled enough to sort things out for themselves. A load of them don’t even have banks. Plus – customers don’t want the hassle of having to pay rent. So , it would be easier all round to stick with the old system. (OK , stop laughing – I know business doesn’t work like that in YOUR world.)

Why did the article make me think of the Dodo?

Because things were always going to change. History teaches us that. Why are we surprised?

We know that any modern business has to habitually innovate and re-invent itself. If it doesn’t and it gets too comfortable – it will become extinct. And it will deserve to.

Whichever sector you work in you are at risk of:

  • Stronger competitors
  • Disruptive technology
  • Demographic changes in your market
  • Changes in the economy
  • Changes that alter the way customers access your business
  • Or changes in politics and regulations

Your business is under threat. All the time. Get used to it.

There are lots of ships on the horizon. And they all contain disruptions to the way we do things.

We better get those wings working.

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10 Myths From The Year We Went Social

2012 was the year in which the Housing Association sector went social. It’s very positive that so many of us have recognised the clear customer service and business benefits that social and digital engagement can bring.

This was year we went social. And these are 10 things we have learned not to be true:

1: Social Media Is Simple

It’s easy to set up an account, but it’s not easy to make it work. Having worked in customer engagement for over 10 years I feel it is harder to effectively engage online than it is offline. In real life you can look into a customers eyes and read their reaction. In the social stream – you can’t. And our customers are becoming increasingly fragmented and harder to find. To engage with customers we used to knock doors.  In the virtual world they could be anywhere, anytime. It’s hard work.

2: Our Customers Are Not Online

I knew this to be false when a Customer Board Member emailed me to say they didn’t have internet access. People are online,  but they often choose not to tell their landlord. And sometimes they don’t even realise they are online. A customer recently told me they didn’t need broadband as they only ever used Facebook. Although I don’t deny that exclusion exists – the emerging issue is digital literacy and confidence rather than lack of access.

3: Social Media is Free

It is at first. And then you realise you need content. And content takes time to find, and longer to create. Too many organisations are making the mistake of thinking social media equals no printing and no advertising  – so it will be cheaper. But you are going to have to invest in new skills and new technology. It’s an investment in a completely different customer relationship.

4: Policy Can Protect Your Brand.

Whether you have a one page social media policy or hundreds of pages , your success or failure will be defined by just two things: leadership and common sense. In my experience the shorter the policy and the more visible the leadership , the greater the common sense.

5: We Are Ready For Generation Z.

Generally we are not. My challenge? Offer up your web and online services up to any 15 year old used to managing an account with Xbox Live or Playstation Network. Then ask them what they think. Most of our organisations are in the dark ages when it comes to intuitive online user experiences. It should be a concern that many of the people we involve in implementing new services have never heard of , let alone used , Xbox Live or Playstation Network.

6: Digital Will Lead To Better Customer Service.

You can make your service worse if you are just present without having presence. When people used to leave the phone ringing the only person who knew about it was the customer on the other end of the line. I just looked at an account by a large organisation. Last tweet 12th October. Last Facebook post 15th November. Website last updated in July. It’s there for the whole world to see.

7: Digital Is Slowing Down.

Marc Prensky has said slowdown in the digital age is a “myth,” as innovation will only press forward “faster… And faster and faster.” I love his quote: “We are not going through a transition to another phase of stability. People will always be behind now and that will be a stress they have to cope with.” Our companies , our people , our websites – always behind. Get used to it.

8: People Will Follow You And Like Your Page

Only if you are Justin Bieber or One Direction. Otherwise you are going to have to make it worth peoples time. You must post interesting content that is relevant to your audience and engage them in conversations around it. If you are looking at the slides you will see I referenced Bagpuss. It’s a reminder to Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers that we have a different medium but the rules are essentially the same. Every episode of Bagpuss was about the telling of a story and the engagement and contribution of the community to the telling of it. Nobody remembers how the ship got in that bottle. But everyone remembers how the story was told.

9: We Are Moving Our Customers To The Website

You can’t. We don’t have any way of commanding our customers attention anymore. Customers ARE your new website. One of the most significant shifts this year is the amount of time people are spending within social networks. I know people who have arranged their holidays, had their homes re-decorated , bought a car – purely through Facebook. I no longer read Inside Housing (our trade publication) – as its’ content is curated for me by people like Lara Oyedele , Philip Lyons and Jules Birch. I trust them and they are my network. Why would anyone come to the website of a Housing Association when they can get what they want from their network?  The only question is  – do you know who is curating and sharing your content?

10: Social Media Is Great For Broadcasting News

People engage with people not press releases. If there is one thing we all have to embrace next year it is putting the social into social media. The most popular post I have written this year was about the way housing has a tendency to talk about itself rather than create a compelling narrative around the difference it makes to peoples lives. I think we have improved. But we could do so much more in 2013.

These are my myths. I’d love to hear yours.

(The content of this post was originally presented at the Chartered Institute of Housing Social Media and Digital Engagement Conference)

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