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




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


Stop Pushing your Customer Around!

Push marketing is such hard work. The problem is, many entrepreneurs start off as inventors. They want to create something, and they’re convinced that if they create the right something, the world will beat a path to their door. But more often than not, when we work with our clients to try out inventions that have been developed in a workshop or a lab, with little customer consultation, customers just aren’t interested.

“Explain it to them!” say the inventors. But in the wise words of a former colleague, sometimes, “Someone’s gotta tell them the baby’s ugly.” We’re very much in favour of inventors getting up close and personal with prospective customers from the very start of the process. Leading entrepreneurship thinkers like Steve Blank have shown repeatedly that this is the most reliable way to come up with a product or solution that is both needed, and wanted. So what’s our role? Shouldn’t the inventors just “get out of the building” (Blank’s words) and talk to these prospective customers?

The truth is, this works very well for some entrepreneurs or inventors. It’s the most direct, useful method for individuals or teams who are open to hearing both positive and negative feedback about their ideas. In our experience, there are two places where the process usually breaks down. The first is that the inventors need someone to help them hear the bad news because it is such a game-changer that it seems their idea won’t work at all. This is a tough yet defining moment. They can give up, or they can find another idea that is more creative or interesting. At this point, having a facilitator, thought-leader, or ideation mentor can help them come up with options that avoid the pitfalls of the original invention. The second break-point is that they receive the message about what part of their idea doesn’t work, but just can’t seem to figure out how to get there. In that case, taking a new approach from traditional brainstorming, such as using an Innovation Game to answer their question, can help them get back on track and re-energize their commitment to their invention. Because really, who doesn’t like to throw a little fun in with their work?

So stop pushing your customer around, and look for ways to give them what they want. It might not be easy, but it is most definitely easier than making them take something they never really wanted in the first place.

Creatively yours,

Megann and Steve

Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim…?

Logic and experience tell us that decisions can never be made on perfect information. Just like buying the latest technological gadget, what has impacted your customers’ behaviour continues to change, even as you are analyzing the latest research into their actions. There will always be one more question you could have asked, or one more angle you could have considered. So what should you do? And how do you know when enough is enough?

The key is to plan, then act. Start with clear objectives about what you’re trying to find out. (READY) That will allow you to put together a strong list of key questions and determine the targets and the methodology. (AIM) As soon as that’s done, execute. (FIRE!) Well-planned questions of any sort will yield better information than adjusting and refining to the point where you’ve long-since forgotten why you wanted to know what you wanted to know, in the first place. And timely information will help you make decisions, and take action, while there’s still an opportunity to have an impact. That’s as close to perfection as you’re ever going to get.

We’ve got customers in our sights,

Megann and Steve

K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Smarty!

As an Engineer, I have a fondness for elegant solutions, but just received an email that reminded me that not all problems require the same level of complexity as building an A380 airplane.

To make a long story short, a toothpaste manufacturing plant had a quality issue where not every box that came off the line contained a tube of toothpaste.  This was a headache to the consumer, the seller and the company.

They hired an engineering firm to correct this problem, and 6 months (and $8MM) later they had a sophisticated system involving a high sensitivity scale which set off a loud alarm when an empty box passed over it.

It was, apparently, highly successful, as their defect rate fell to zero and everyone was thrilled.  Only one problem…anyone with 6 Sigma experience will tell you that a zero defect rate just doesn’t happen.  So they investigated.

During an inspection of the line, they found that a few feet before the scale was a $20 fan which blew any empty boxes into a recycle bin.  When they inquired further they were told: “One of the guys put it there because he was tired of walking over to the scale every time a bell went off.”

What’s the moral of the story…keep it simple, smarty!

If it’s your customer’s problem, find the simplest way to help them.  Don’t make them friend you on Facebook, or complete a multi-page survey unless that’s what they want to do.

If it’s an internal problem, involve the right people in developing the solution.  Don’t assume you know what “everybody” wants. And make sure the team members who are responsible for delivering are in the room – not just those who are experiencing the difficulty.

Our approach to simplicity is to find out what questions you need answered to determine who can best answer those questions, to figure out how we can best engage them; then… just do it (sorry Nike!).

Happy Mid-Winter!

Steve and Megann

Where Were You When You Heard About John Lennon?

Critics of research where consumers are asked to recall their experiences often point out that respondents have trouble remembering what they did, how they did it, or how it felt. And that can certainly be true. But it’s not a case of faulty memory on the part of the customers. More often, it’s that what is important to you, the marketer, just isn’t as important to the customer. What is a crucial experience for you to understand as a marketer isn’t crucial, or perhaps even relevant, to the person buying the product. You’ve made your best effort to surprise or delight that person, and yet they don’t remember the interaction at all. Why not?

Cast your own memory to a different situation…one where the message, the impact, and the experience are so crystal clear that feel like you can’t forget a single detail. For us, we can remember exactly what we were doing when we heard about John Lennon. We remember the sound of the radio. The smell of the room. What we were doing. Who was there. What makes us recall a moment or event so vividly?

In 1977, Brown and Kulik studied what they called “flashbulb memory”. While subsequent research has shown that many flashbulb memories were more common in negative events, and that they were far from precise, the level of retention was much higher for the emotional components of the experience, and anything that served to reinforce those emotions and aid recall of the respondent’s experiential story. These are the key components:

  1. Importance – The experience has to be important to the subject. If it is a routine activity that they typically completed with little thought, they aren’t likely to have good recall, or to build an emotional story around it. Conversely, an experience can be very important to a person, and have little importance to those around him or her. This is why your recall of your experience with the schoolyard bully may stay with you – it was important to you (even if it wasn’t important to her).
  2. Intensity – How intensely the individual feels their reaction at the time (as opposed to the consequence of the experience), the more likely they are to develop a snapshot in time, in their minds. Shock and awe, fear, pain, elation…all of these are intense emotions. Acceptance, resignation, or even interest…are not.
  3. Distinctiveness – The event has to be different – to stand out from the ongoing experience, or it won’t likely create a flashbulb memory. So the purchase of one can of soup in a long list of groceries is unlikely to stand out for a consumer as much as the experience of taking delivery of her first car.
  4. Personal involvement or proximity – Situations your customer has heard about just aren’t as likely to stick with them as events they’ve been involved with personally. The more their five senses have been involved, the more likely they are to remember the details and emotions of their experience. That’s why, while our recall of where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with on December 8, 1980 seems as clear as yesterday, we’re sure it can’t come close to the memories of those who were there.

So likewise, if you want your customer’s brand experience to be truly memorable, it needs to be important, intense, unique, and deeply personal.

Fondly remembering John Lennon,

Megann & Steve

The End is Near! Our Top-Five Stock-Taking Tips

The end of the year, that is. That Q4 rush is in full-swing, with each of us trying to push through just one more project before 2011 comes to a close. Customers want it all, and they want it now. At this time of year it can become such a rush just to finish things that it can be difficult to remember to take stock. But stepping back is the only way to be sure you’re ready to get off to a running start in the New Year.  So here are a few key suggestions to make sure you have your house in order for the arrival of 2012.

  1. Customer understanding – have you listened to your customers lately? We’re not asking if you’ve asked them questions, we’re sure you have. But that’s your agenda. By 2012, plan to open up as many channels as possible for them to tell you what they want.
  2. Clean house – lose any distractions or habits that are just that, habits, that aren’t adding value to your customer relationships.
  3. Getting there – what were your objectives at the beginning of 2011? If you haven’t met them, and won’t, you need to make a gate change – re-assess your destination, and be specific.
  4. Ask for help – reach out to business partners and colleagues who have steered you in the right direction in the past, and figure out how you’ll work together in the coming year.
  5. Express yourself – be sure you’re outlining your needs clearly and succinctly, so you’ll get what you need. If you can’t do this alone, find someone who can help.

Getting ready, because 2012 is coming fast,

Megann and Steve