How do you get to the bottom of customers’ needs, desires, priorities, experiences… ? Traditional means involve doing things like: market research (interviews, focus groups, surveys, etc…), getting feedback from your sales or service people, listening to what customers ask for or complain about on-line, etc…
In general, we’ve found that these approaches are sufficient for identifying opportunities for incremental improvements in service levels associated with your existing touchpoints with the customer. However, if the objective is to identify opportunities to create a more innovative and differentiating experience, these approaches are limited by two very significant barriers:
- Cognitive Bias. Customers typically can’t easily or clearly explain their deeper motivations, particularly if these motivations are related to needs or desires that are currently unmet or that they’ve felt but haven’t consciously thought about. Customers descriptions of their past experiences is particularly biased and unreliable. Perceptual filtering ensures that the large majority of the details of past experiences are never consciously processed. As Daniel Schacter describes in The Seven Sins of Memory, people tend to reconstruct rather than recall their past experiences. In the course of doing that many details are lost, some are sharpened (emphasized), and some are leveled (de-emphasized).
- Motivational Bias. Customers may not want to tell you everything in an unbiased fashion. In recalling past experiences, their is a natural tendency for the customer to cast their role and behavior in a more positive light. In many consumer situations, when asked to describe their needs, customers are uncomfortable sharing anything that demonstrates weakness or that may be socially unacceptable. In business settings, participating in research or talking with company representative may be perceived as part of a negotiation. If so, customers may either make bold demands or feel that insight they share could be used to gain leverage in the relationship.
As a results, actual customer behavior is not highly correlated with what customers tell you they want. Actual customer behavior is influenced by latent values, hidden motivations, limited awareness, information of questionable accuracy, occasionally irrational decision processes, social influence, and force of habit.
There are two types of techniques your organization can use to overcome these barriers:
- Observation. This is a branch of ethnography that studies the experiences and behavior of individual customers in depth. It focuses on the customer’s end-to-end experience rather than just being limited by the existing set of touchpoints. By observing customers in action in their own environments, you can develop a much more intimate understanding of how they think and act, not just what the customer remembers or is capable of articulating. Observation surfaces customers’ latent or unexpressed needs, how they shop, actual product usage patterns, customer frustration points, as well as, compromises and workarounds that customers have developed.
- Elicitation. Rather than asking customers what they remember about their past experiences and what they want, elicitation tries to get at the mental model that underlies the customers’ experience and their behavior. In Cognitive Ergonomics: Designing Experiences that Fit the Customers’ Mental Model, I describe four major components of understanding the customers’ mental model (goals, lifecycle, schema, and temperament). Elicitation techniques have been developed for covert intelligence gathering, expert systems knowledge acquisition, and investigative reporting. These techniques include story telling, unstructured dialogue, case studies, role playing, simulation, and goal-directed exercises.
We used a combination of observation and elicitation to understand the customers’ end-to-end jewelry gift giving experience for a major jewelry retailer (referenced in “The Customers’ Experience Does Not Happen at Your Touchpoints“). Several of the most critical aspects of the customers’ experience occurred at non-touchpoints with the retailer. This included: how the customer shopped (the differences between “exploratory” or “intentional” shopping behaviors, how many stores they visited and how they chose which stores to visit and ultimately which store to buy from); what happened after the customer left the store with a gift they purchased (planning, anticipating, waiting to give the gift); what happened at the point of giving the gift, etc… Observing what customers do and eliciting the way they think and feel about their end-to-end experience were critical to identifying how this company could differentiate the customers’ experience around innovative gift giving.