What the heck is Customer Understanding anyway?

When we tell people that Panoptika is focused on Customer Understanding it sometimes seems to confuse them.  I guess that’s normal, as the current practice can be different depending on your organization.  When we talk a bit more a typical response is “Oh, you mean Business or Customer Intelligence?”, or even, “Market Research?”

curious kid

We’re not a big fan of the term Customer Intelligence…it kinda sounds like spying, doesn’t it? Your customer needs to know that you want to understand them so you can deliver products and services they want and need, as opposed to trying to seduce them into buying.

So let’s look at a few of the aspects of Customer Understanding that our clients have needed help with, and see if they resonate with you.

In the first example, do you understand where your product or service fits into your customers’ operations?  How and when they use it? If they use in in conjunction with other companies’ products?  What happens immediately before and after they use your product? If you don’t understand this, you may be missing out on opportunities for line extensions, improved pricing, or other value added services.

How can we help you get a better handle on all of this?  First, we help develop a roadmap you can use to walk the customer through their day, focusing on all their daily or weekly tasks, with them as the star of the story, rather than the product you sell.  The drawback to this is that often it tries to impose a linear sequence in jobs that are more convoluted.  It might be better to use an analogy, such as a Spider Web, to map out the interactions that occur in and around the problems they have to solve, and where your product fits in all of that. In either of these methods, the important part is listening to the story they tell, which will reveal not only the facts, but the emotions they experience.

Another fundamental aspect of Customer Understanding is the ability to deliver the right features for your key customers.  It seems everyone has their own way of trying to determine this, but we recommend getting your customers intimately involved in the discussion. Our friends at Conteneo have developed some great tools we often use, regardless of whether you are able to get your customers together in a room, or they are far away and you need to engage them remotely.

If you have the opportunity to get key customers in one place, at an industry conference or site visit, we can use Buy a Feature, a game where players work collaboratively to purchase the features they feel are most important to them. If your team is together, but neither you nor the customer can afford a face-to-face meeting, then the online version, called Decision Engine, may be a better choice. It’s a powerful graphic interface we use to accomplish the same goals, but using a cloud platform and a chat function. Working in teams of up to 8 people, each player has a limited amount of money to spend on the features they feel are most important.  The key is they don’t have enough to buy everything they want, so they have to negotiate with the other players to successfully get what’s important to them. This lets you hear the “why” – which is more important than the money when it comes to motivating action. It’s the heart-and-mind part of the story.

As in most Customer Understanding discovery work, the ultimate outcome is a clearer picture of why certain things are important to your customers. It helps reveal the pain they experience, they problem they’re encountering, or the need they can’t always articulate (or won’t, because the idea of a possible solution is beyond their imagination).

Last of all, let’s think about developing empathy, or improving your ability to see things from your customers’ perspective.  A tool we’ve found extremely helpful is called an Empathy Map. It’s not a new tool, and you may have seen it before. For our clients, it still always nets some real value. You can use the Empathy Map in a couple of different ways.  The most effective is to actually have your customer map out what they hear, what they say, and what they think in a particular situation.  Again, we can do this in person, or use an online visualization tool.  The second way, which can also be very powerful, is to have you team complete the same exercise, but put themselves in the customer’s shoes. Whether it’s engineering, sales, marketing, or finance, when they start to think about what’s in the customer’s head at the time of interaction – somehow that’s when the magic happens.

If you’d like to learn how to use some of these tools and techniques to strengthen your customer relationships, we’re here to help.

Always sharpening our tools,

Steve and Megann





A Gentleman Made us Think: RIP Jean Béliveau

Full disclosure: the she-partner is not a hockey fan of any kind. In fact, other than knowing the hockey score on her wedding day, and that there is a long-held hockey team rivalry between the he-partner and our number one son, she gives the same level of attention to hockey as that girl in the Tragically Hip song. But today a Canadian icon passed away and it occurs to us that it’s worth giving a nod to Jean Béliveau. Not because he was a hockey player, but because reputation has it that he was a gentleman. It seems in our modern times that showing a soft side to others may be seen as a sign of weakness. Or of not having the “stuff” of business. But when you’re thinking about your customers and trying to figure out what they want, where they’re going, what their pain is all about, or how to solve it for them, a little empathy goes a long way. So in addition to just being polite and kind as Béliveau was reputed to have been, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Not sure how? Let us know. We can help.

Listening for your “why”,

Megann and Steve

Who is your Customer Now?

During a conversation yesterday with one of our networking contacts (not even a prospect, really, just a helpful contact who shared some useful information about his organization and how it’s, well, organized), Megann listened carefully to a map of how the contact’s workplace functions, and with a few well-placed probes like:

  • “Who makes this kind of decision?”
  • “Who uses this sort of information?”
  • “How does your new role compare to your old role?”

…she was able to get a much richer understanding of this fellow’s world. Because we spend the vast majority of our time thinking about prospects and customers (how to find them, get them, talk to them, and keep them), we’ve learned that everyone has customers of some sort. Maybe not the traditional customers who go to a retailer for everything from a quick transaction to a lifestyle experience. And maybe not the kind that write contracts for delivery of goods and services at an enterprise level. But if we think of customers in terms of customer service, each of us, in our business lives, serves someone. That someone is a customer. Just like that, the right question was formulated.

“I know your role has changed and you’re not responsible for customer insights as you once were, but who is your customer now?”

Asking our contact to frame his activities from a specific viewpoint made it possible to get a great understanding of how he relates to his organization’s stakeholders, and what kind of information he might have, or need, at a later time. So the next time you need to understand someone who thinks they don’t have customers, ask them to:

  1. Think about who they serve with what they do.
  2. Describe that individual as their customer.
  3. Tell you about what they do with, and for, that customer.

We’re fairly certain you will gain a richer understanding of how that contact’s world works.

Customer discovery. It’s everywhere.

We’re asking – and listening,

Megann and Steve

Want to hear more? Get in touch via our website, or meet us at an upcoming event, like Invest Atlantic, or ProductCamp Atlantic.

Lalalalalalalala! I Can’t Hear You!

This week has been an interesting study in concept validation for us. We’ve observed several teams in action, and their reactions in the face of customer and stakeholder advice are reminiscent of your average four year old, covering her ears and chanting “Lalalalalalalala” when confronted with an unpopular topic such as bedtime.

One team had the advantage of meeting with a roomful of advisors and mentors. They were convinced that their new concept was sound. How? Well, they had validated it with a handful of potential customers. That was a step in the right direction, most certainly. However their customer discovery pool was incredibly shallow. The number of business advisors in the room was greater than the number of prospects the team had approached with their idea, and they didn’t think the concept would hold water. The collective wisdom was that more validation was required, but this idea was met with resistance.

Organization two gathered their A team together to fine-tune their latest development product. Constraints and challenges were clearly identified at the outset, the team came up with a prototype that met all the user requirements. It seemed to be “just right”. Yet their presentation to their CEO was rejected – he had his own idea as to what the solution should be, and sent them back to the drawing board.

In the last case, the product developer took an idea out to the customers, and was greeted with a positive response. But an advisor with deep domain knowledge suggested the customers’ stated intent might not play out in reality. In other words, that what they said they would do, and what they would actually do, might be different, based on her experience. Presenting the customers with a prototype seemed like the only way forward. But that could be costly. Was there another way?

In each case, changing the research may have given a better outcome. Team one needed to expand the pool of respondents – rejection from no one (or everyone) usually signals that something is amiss. Group two needed to insist their CEO be at the table, if he was determined to have the last word, so his concerns or constraints could be considered at the time, not after the fact. And in case three, observed behaviour, or asking about what the customers actually do currently to solve the problem, might be a less costly approach. Making sure the research approach is right can keep us from looking like we’re just not willing to hear the answer.

Always listening,

Megann and Steve


Why Customer Development is important to your business

There’s a tremendous amount of positive energy in start-up communities around the globe regarding the Lean Canvas. ..for good reason.  When executed properly it’s a very powerful approach to developing and documenting your Business Model.

We can’t explain it any better than Ash Maurya or Steve Blank or many others, so won’t even try.  What we want to talk about is why Customer Development, as espoused by Blank is important to your development.  The practice of creating hypotheses regarding your business model, then getting out of the building to talk with those you think might be your customers, potential partners, and other who could THEORETICALLY play a role in you developing a successful business model.

The reason we feel this is an important part of developing your business model has both a short-term and, hopefully, a long-term influence on your business success.

In the short-term, if you do Customer Development properly, you get out and ask people about their situations, their businesses, and their pain.  You are not going out pitching or selling!  You are starting with their broad perspective, then focusing down to where you  can ask them “Given what you’ve told me, if you had This Thing™, how would that change your life/business/way of doing things?”

The discipline it takes to sit down and really listen to people is a life skill that not enough of us get to develop.  So the more you do it, the more natural it will become

What can businesses learn from the Alberta Floods

We, Canadians and others who care about the human condition, are concerned for the well-being of those in Alberta who have been severely impacted by the flooding which continues to move its way downstream. Even Canadian golfer Graham DeLaet stepped up in an effort to help out. Our prayers and dollars will flood in to help those impacted.

What can we learn that will help us deal not with physical floods, but with the flood of information we receive every day. With Big Data the buzzword of the year, we are being encouraged to put our faith in finding the magic bullet inside the data we are gathering on our customers and competitors.

But are we really prepared to make the right decisions based on the analytics we receive?

Just like the developments in the flood plain, where we should have foreseen were at great risk, we are at risk if we are not thinking carefully when planning our data needs and the system we employ to analysis them. Yes…it is possible to know every piece of information about our customers, what they buy, when and where they buy it, their demographics…and on, and on, and on.

We still, however, need to make human decisions about what data to track, what the trigger will be when we need to make a change, or take an action. We can’t ignore the human element in all this.

So, before you put your faith in the machine, get out and look at the lay of the land. Where do you chose to build you bridges, is your defensive position on a hill, or in a valley, where is the flow coming from? Only by observing things like these can you have the context to make the right moves.

All the best!

Steve and Megann

DIY Research…it’s not so scary

Since arriving in Halifax last Fall, we’ve been dragged to several events where people and groups are pitching ideas they have developed using the Lean Canvas approach,  popularized by Ash Mauraya and Steve Blank, among others.

One of the key elements involves formulating hypotheses and then testing them, ideally by engaging potential customers and other stakeholders in a qualitative discussion (i.e. talking to them) and later by surveying.

Because these are start-ups who have no money and sometimes less than fully formed ideas, they do this themselves.

As someone in the business of providing these types of services, should we be scared?  How are we going to make money and eventually retire if everyone is doing this for themselves?

After think long and hard about this dilemma, we have decided that we actually like what they are doing!

Here’s our reasoning:

  1. People are being encouraged to build businesses based on talking to customers, stakeholders, competitors, financiers…how good is that!
  2. If they are successful, they now, potentially, have customer understanding built into the DNA of their company…that’s good, right?
  3. As they get bigger, they will have business management to concentrate on, so they won’t have as much time to spend talking to their customers…what will they do?  Maybe they will hire someone to help them!  Maybe that someone could be us because we’ve supported them from the early stages?
  4. Also, as they grow, they become threatening to their competitor, so they can no longer have those conversations.  Maybe that’s another place we can help them?

So go lean!  And if you have a chance check out the Norman Newman Centre for Entrepreneurship at Dalhousie University!