Your Current Customer Research Misses What's Most Important

People fib on surveys. Focus groups take customers out of their element. So how do you do better research?

Want to derail your customer experience initiatives? Then base them on a flawed or incomplete understanding of your customers. This advice may sound silly, but it's the course of action that companies around the globe—maybe even yours—take every day. What's worse, most don't realize they're doing it.

That's because nearly every company does at least some customer research. With a survey here and a focus group there, they figure they've got their bases covered. But these methods simply can't deliver the kind of insights required to design experiences that truly meet (or exceed) your customers' needs. For that, you need to know who your customers really are. Not just what they do—but the attitudes, emotions, and motivations that drive their behavior. You also need ways to uncover what your customers want and need, even if they can't articulate it themselves.

Quantitative surveys aren't the right tool for this job. If you want to know why people did (or didn't do) something or about the nuances of how they did something, then multiple-choice survey questions are difficult, if not impossible, to craft. They only work if you know the answers beforehand—and when it comes to customer experience, the likelihood that you'll know what your customers want or need before you ask them is close to nil. In addition, surveys rely on respondents to know the truth. Surveys often ask people what they plan to do or whether they want (or don't want) something. However, most people aren't fully aware of, don't remember, or just aren't able to predict their own behaviors in situations that they haven't been in before.

Focus groups aren't the right tool either. Contrary to popular belief, they have a limited ability to uncover existing behaviors and needs. An anecdote from Eric Nicolas, Holiday Inn's director of global brand management, demonstrates this point: "We did an online food diary where we asked travelers to tell us what they were thinking about having for breakfast, what they actually had, what snacks they bought, and how they felt before and after they ate dinner. One lady told us she wanted to eat healthy. But then she bought a pizza at 4:00 p.m. and ate four slices. At 10:00 p.m. she ate another slice. The last slice was her breakfast. That would never have come through in a focus group."

Now, I'm not suggesting that you toss out these research methods completely. But if your aim is to get a complete picture of what your customers really need—and to discover opportunities for meeting those needs in differentiated ways—you've got to supplement surveys and focus groups with additional customer research methods.

In Forrester's new book, Outside In, my co-author Harley Manning and I describe how E.ON, a gas and electricity provider serving twenty European countries, benefited from this approach. Business analytics showed that the churn rate for new customers—those who had been with E.ON for a year or less—was much too high. And when surveyed about the experience of switching to E.ON from another energy provider, customer expressed sentiments ranging from neutral to negative.

Adam Elliott, E.ON's head of customer insights, explains the problem: "We want customers to get the first bill and love us. If they don't have a strong positive opinion of us after three to four months, we haven't sufficiently engaged with them."

Why is Adam, who works at a utility company, so concerned with customers' emotions?

"The way that we make a customer feel will dictate how they behave—whether they stay with us as their energy provider, whether they call us up, and whether they shout at us when they do call," he says. "These things have huge cost and revenue implications, but typical management information doesn't address how our customers feel."

What kinds of emotions did E.ON's new customers have during the switchover period? And when and how did they want to be engaged by the company? The answers weren't in a survey. Instead, E.ON asked a group of brand-new customers to keep every communication they received from them over the six weeks that it took to get them switched over from their old provider. They also asked them to create a graph about how they felt about the switching experience each day. These exercises and subsequent one-on-one interviews in customers' homes revealed that E.ON's new recruits wanted reassurance that they'd made the right decision to switch providers—and became concerned when they didn't get it.

Prior to this in-home research, E.ON felt that reaching out during the six-week switchover was unnecessary. But the new insights showed that what happened during that time actually mattered a lot. In response, E.ON created additional touchpoints that now enable them to stay in touch with customers during the switchover period, even though there's really nothing of substance to communicate.

That may sound like a relatively minor customer experience improvement—and it is. But it's helped E.ON fill a gap in new customers' emotional needs during a critical time.

Since customer experience is your primary asset, thoughtful research can create a major advantage.

Kerry Bodine is the co-author of Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business. She is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, where she serves customer experience professionals. Follow her @kerrybodine.

[Image: Flickr user Terence Hill]

Add New Comment

2 Comments

  • Listen, Learn, Live LLC

    Kudos to E.ON for creatively identifying the touch points in their customer lifecycle and starting at the beginning.  They now have actionable feedback they are using to make changes - even simple ones - right from the start.  Maybe their next step will be to evaluate customers who decided NOT to transfer service..now that would be interesting!

  • Chris Dowsett

    The mirroring example is just a form of survey feedback. I think what this article is getting at is that research should be more holistic and that the methodology needs to fit the purpose. Surveys can't do everything. No methodology can. Businesses that take a holistic approach to research alongside researchers and analysts that understand how to look at data will get much closer to the truth. Organizations that rely on a single survey or one focus group are doing themselves a disservice as well as wasting money.