One of the authors was once tasked with re-branding NY Thoroughbred racetracks. They had fallen on hard times as they were considered a “thing of the past.” One of the favored stories told by the CMO was how the owner of the tracks – he of a venerable wealthy east coast family – would come to the track once a month to scout horses he was be interested in buying, or to check on a horse he already owned. He was led up the executive elevator to the observation deck, avoiding any contact with the betting multitudes in the stands. He was given his prized binoculars by his man-servant, and proceeded to look out to the paddock and the track for his own horses and one that might be of interest to purchase. While standing at the window of the deck, his man-servant jostled him, and his binocular’s sights shifted to the stands below and the hopeful citizen bettors. Upon seeing that sight, he asked, “Who are those people? What are they doing here?”
It’s no wonder the experience and the revenue of the tracks was in decline. The owner was completely out of touch. And if he had bothered to ask his customers, he might have known which horse to buy.
If you do nothing else in our story develoment process, you must talk to customers. It continues to amaze us how often companies rely on the opinion of one or two key executives, usually marketing or sales team members, as a proxy for how customers think. Every company in the world believes they know what their customers think. But they don’t. Part of the problem is a lack of consensus. Ask 10 different people within your company what customers want and you will get 10 different answers.
Another problem we see is internal opinions suffer from recency bias. Whatever you heard in the last week or month is the most important. Or, whatever NEW insights you get from customers take precedence over all the others.
The Messaging Merry-Go-Round
Here’s a frequent scenario: Your company lands a big new account from a category where you haven’t had much success in the past. Their reasons for choosing your product are different from those of previous customers. These new insights wash over your company in a wave of excitement. This is the new thinking. This is what customers want. Everything you have learned in the past now takes a back seat to this exciting new and recent information. It requires all new content, new home pages, new lead magnets, new presentations – the works. Prospects who liked your content last month come to your site and see a whole new message that doesn’t apply to them. And when the lead gen numbers stay flat, or get worse, everyone scrambles for the next big thing in terms of messages. And the cycle starts again. Pretty soon, no one believes in anything coming from the marketing department, and they start creating content of their own to suit any and every situation – with any and every message they can dream up. Until one day people look up and say, “We have no message.”
This is no way to develop a message, content, or strengthen a brand. Instead, you must:
- Understand the individual customer’s needs and interests.
- Clarify what’s common to customers within each key segment or vertical.
- Look for commonalities across all customers.
Before you start looking for new sources of customer insights, take advantage of what’s already there. Your organization may have gathered customer information of several types:
- Surveys – this is a tried and true way to get feedback, and it’s widely used because it’s so simple. If you have data that indicate customer satisfaction, like Net Promoter score, they can be helpful. Some companies do annual or more frequent surveys for their customers as well.
- Social Listening/ Sentiment Tools – you can get data from these tools to help you better understand what’s being said about your brand in social environments
- Online reviews – a quick Google search with your brand name followed by reviews will often serve up a ton of results. Take them into consideration but take them with a grain of salt too.
- Customer support/Customer Success data – your customers’ conversations with support reps reveal a lot about what customers think. They generally aren’t afraid to let their voice be known. If your company records the interactions, you can transcribe them and use tools to analyze sentiment etc. Or if the volume of conversations is small, you can read them as a team and generate a report.
These are just some of the ways companies can get a well-rounded understanding of customers. But we recommend another type of information-gathering with customers. Speaking with them directly. Yes, it’s decidedly low-tech, non-quantitative and it doesn’t scale well. And it also happens to be one of the best ways to really understand customers.
There are two important advantages to direct conversations over other forms of interaction:
- They help you discover unknown unknowns. Surveys are limited to what you already know to ask about. But there are probably many ideas, issues and insights customers would be happy to share if given the opportunity. We ask lots of open-ended questions in our customer interviews. They choose what’s important to discuss. If you are looking for NEW insights, conversations are the way to go.
- 1 on 1 conversations allow for follow-up questions. Asking “Why?” again and again gets into emotional benefits. That’s difficult to get from a survey, or impute from social media chatter.
Generally, talk to as many customers as you can. The bigger the sample, the more confidence in the findings. But yes, it’s not a perfect world, and there’s often a limited amount of time and resources you can put into talking with them.
Key Considerations For Customer Conversations
- Include both older and newer customers in your mix. Newer customers can tell why they purchased your product or service, since the experience is fresh in their minds. Older customers can provide better insight into why they have stayed with your product. In talking with one of our clients’ customers in the fintech space, we learned that while there was an immediate need for a more scalable process for making payments, once they implemented our client’s software, they discovered that the new customer onboarding process the software delivered was a huge benefit – much more significant than the original payments pain point.
- Talk with customers in the various market segments you target. If you have mid-sized and enterprise customers, speak with both. The same goes with key industries or verticals. Try to touch on all of the major ones, or those that are newer but growing. Too often, companies only speak with their main vertical, missing out on insights from other growth areas.
- Make it systematic. Customer conversations shouldn’t just be once in a while on an ad-hoc basis. Regularly planned interactions allow you have a constant flow of information on hand, rather than having to scramble to do it when the need arises. You can review customer comments and insights and proactively share them with your team and organization. This puts you in the position of being the customer expert, rather than having to respond to the lastest, hottest insight from the new customer as above.
Read Their World
Customers tend to answer questions in the context of their role in their company. The more you understand their job function and their state of mind, the more you’ll be able to unpack their answers.
If you’re interviewing controllers in the finance department of a company, you need a deep understanding of their responsibilities. That’s table stakes for the conversation. But you need to go deeper.
Is the morale good or bad in their department? Is their department adequately staffed? What’s the perception of the department and the rest of the company? How long have they been in this role? Is the person ascending the corporate ladder rapidly or is she likely to be let go? Having a solid grounding of the customer situation gives you the opportunity for much deeper insight when you begin to discuss things like how valuable your product is and what it does for that individual.
One of our clients’ customers revealed that his team had threatened to walk out unless the cumbersome process they were using got automated. That’s an entirely different situation than if the customer works in a department where morale is great, and people are happy. Not every customer is on the verge of a major employee revolt. The insights gleaned from such a situation may not be representative of the marketplace, so you need to take them with a grain of salt. Understanding the context helps you determine the degree to which an issue is important or affecting the answer a customer gives. Always understand context before asking product and brand questions. Read their world.
What do you ask customers?
You probably have a list of questions for which you want answers. You might want to get feedback on a new product or a new campaign. Here are some others that are typically part of our customer conversations:
What was the impetus for seeking out a solution like yours?
What problems or issues were they facing, and what led them to you as a potential solution?
What aspects of your product do they like best and how do they help in solving their problems?
What is the difference in their situation before using your product and after using it? How has it changed?
Most importantly, you are trying to understand emotional outcomes. What is the difference in their emotional state before and after using your product? It can be difficult – especially in the B2B framework – for an executive (the customer) to open up about his/her emotional state. You may need to ask the same question in different ways in order to get the emotional insights you need. Keep asking the question, “Why?” until you discover the emotional underpinning of their thinking. Unlocking the emotions of customers’ experience is the key to developing a strong message for your brand.
Once you’ve completed the interviews, summarize what you’ve learned.
Look at the answers for each of the questions and identify patterns/themes. Which answers are similar within a certain market segment? Which answers best summarize the thinking of ALL customers, regardless of segment? Record and transcribe the conversations (if they agree). Direct quotes from customers illustrate key insights better than anything else. Share these insights with the people participating in the messaging initiative, either in a formal session or by sharing a presentation. If you do it regularly, the entire organization will better understand customers, and might even recognize them when they peer through their binoculars.