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  • Maria Barbieri

To listen or not to listen to your customers

Updated: Mar 16, 2023


What is the main job of a marketer? It’s the million-dollar question which still hasn’t reached a proper consensus within the industry. Probably due to the multifaced nature of the discipline. My view, in line with what drove me to marketing in the first place, coincides with the one expressed by Prof. Mark Ritson during a recent episode of the Uncensored CMO podcast with Jon Evans:

“The prime directive of a marketer all the way to the CMOs is to represent the consumer in the place where decisions are made…….and as we go into a recession, the main job for marketers, first and foremost, is to capture the changing picture and bring into the organization because we will have to change some of our strategy, some of our execution. And it’s the marketer’s job to show the rest of the organization how things are changing”.


Can you trust your customers?


Regardless of whether you agree or not with this level of prioritization, being the voice of the customer ranks high in the task list of a marketer and leaves the floor open to further questions: How do we know what customers want? How do we collect relevant insights from them? Especially when there are contradictories views, including finding from behavioural scientists and psychologists all pointing to the fact that people have no idea what they want, don’t know what they would do and that our brains are exceptionally good at creating coherent (but not necessarily true) stories that deceive us. I report below the most commonly used quotes:

“If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Henry Ford (supposedly).

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Steve Jobs.

“The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story the mind has managed to construct”. Daniel Kahneman, Economist and Psychologist, Nobel laurate.

“What people say, what people do and what people say they do are entirely different thing”. Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist.


Ignore your customers at your own peril


The above might mislead us into thinking that we should neither talk to our customers nor conduct user research. That would be a big mistake with disastrous consequences to the bottom line. Plenty of research have shown that the more market-oriented (=customer-centric) a company it is, the faster it will grow, the more profit it will make and the more successful its new innovation will be. The first rule of marketing, somehow derived from the concept of market orientation, is that you are not the customer and therefore, gut instinct alone would not lead you far in understanding and predicting the market. This is something that we were constantly reminded of during the Marketing Week Mini MBA with Mark Ritson I had the pleasure to attend last year. We should then use those quotes as a guidance on how to talk to our customers rather than an admonition against it. The crucial question is not IF but HOW and WHAT. The moment we start focusing on understanding the underlying problem the customer is trying to solve rather than on their proposed solution (i.e., “faster horses”) the benefit of talking to them will become clear.


Conducting story-based customer interviews


Enter the concept of customer research which is a key component of the three steps model at the heart of any good marketing: diagnosis, strategy and tactics. The diagnosis usually includes secondary research, qualitative research and quantitative research. You normally start with qualitative with the aim of understanding the market (focus group, ethnography, one to one) and then move to quantitative to measure it (survey, market tests, conjoint).

In this article I will focus on the first one, as it’s with the qualitative research where we discover the problems, the Jobs to Be done, the unmet needs, pain points, and desires. It’s what allows us to add that often-missing human insight from big data. While observing people in their own environment might provide better insight, is not always possible to do so. Interviews instead are easier to achieve and can also be conducive to a deeper understanding of your customer’s world. Provided that they are conducted in the right way and the right questions are asked, especially based on what we know from human and cognitive psychology: We are all susceptible to bias, both in terms of describing our own behaviour and gathering insights from the interviews we conduct. Some of the most common biases we see in these circumstances are framing effect, anchoring, loss aversion, availability. A good way to overcome them is to conduct story-based interviews which make it easier for customers to share their experience or a specific example of a past behaviour rather than a generalized explanation of what they think, what they think they would do or why they think they do something. And by now we know that an actual behaviour tends to be a more reliable measure to work with. Marketing people are in the business of changing and influencing behaviour. Therefore, we should focus on the behaviour and understanding what people actually did, what they were trying to accomplish and the context they operate in.


Channel your inner child


Teresa Torres, internationally acclaimed author, speaker, and coach, make a great case for it and provides useful guidance on how to interview customers effectively, during an episode of Lenny Rachitsky podcast (link in the comment) dedicated to the topic. As Teresa explains, if you're not collecting rich stories in your interviews, it's going to be really hard to identify opportunities. It’s important to be curious about their experience, and help the customer open up and tell the timeline/ journey. For this to work, we need to learn to listen, slow down and almost act as a five-year-old. But instead of saying, "Why? Why? Why?" ask, "What happened next? ", “Tell me more about that” or another different grownup version of it. In this way you end up hearing about things you would have never thought to ask about. Furthermore, don’t be afraid of bothering the customer. They are humans and as such they are impacted by the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening with empathy is the cheapest concession we can provide to our customers. If you do your job properly, they will come back for more.

This also reminded me of the 5 Whys methodology developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used to reach the root cause of the problems within the manufacturing process of Toyota Motors. Considering that the real objective of the interview is to unearth unmet needs, pain points or desires, it’s crucial to suspend the urge to jump to solutions. The more precisely you define the problem, understand the journey the more easily you find the solution and more importantly the necessary elements to craft a compelling story to afterward sell that solution. Ultimately, it's all about perceived value. Doing this is not easy and it takes practice but it’s worth the effort. During my role as a field marketing, the time I got the better insights from customers was when I abandoned the structured approach, and the customer was able to go off the script and share its experience freely.


And then?


Once the stories are collected, a bigger challenge lies in connecting the dots, synthesizing these stories, and convert them into actionable insights that will then be tested and measured with the quantitative phase of the research. The results will inform your marketing strategy and the tactical execution of it through any of the 4Ps (Product, Pricing, IMC and distribution). After all marketing is about getting the right product, with the right message, to the right people, at the right time and at the true economic value through the right channel.


Final thoughts


So, should you listen to your customers? Definitely yes and you should be doing so in a continuous way to keep abreast of their evolving needs and ensure that the resulting insights are acted upon and included in the most relevant decision-making process across the business. By following this process there is a high likelihood that your product/solution and thus your business will thrive in the market.

And remember - never lose focus on the problem. It all starts from there.

Feel free to reach out or share in the comments, any feedback or other effective methodology you might have implemented to gain great insight from your customer ……a pub session falls within the story-based category😉

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