For innovation: listen to your customers but don’t believe them

Big data and analytics are going to alter customer experiences through personalization. But, companies should be wise get out of the building and not assume that big data is an innovation silver bullet.

As companies adopt social and big data technologies, automation and anticipation will become hotly adopted strategies to create or enhance existing offerings. For some industries, such as retail, providing the option for customers to order through their mobile phone is the first step towards automation and anticipation, and pretty soon we’ll start seeing people’s orders waiting for them before they even order them.

With all the data about customer habits it has accumulated over the years, Starbucks is a company that is uniquely positioned to do this. I don’t know the exact number of times the average person stops by Starbucks on their way to work, but I’m sure it is in the 3 day average.

That’s an ingrained habit.

But, even with some sense of certainty of what people might do, we still have to ask ourselves some questions: How will customers benefit from us anticipating what they will order today? At what point does novelty wear off? How will it make them feel? What would make them feel less uncomfortable?

It is very easy to jump on the mobile bandwagon and intuit that you need to develop a mobile app for customers. Which is what many companies do. But, few businesses have the benefit of a large customer base to play with as Starbucks does. And, compared to other large organizations, Starbucks isn’t afraid to push the boundaries and sell imperfect products to its customers. Although the Lean Startup methodology is starting to creep into the corporate environment, there is still a “prove it” mindset within most corporations.

This experimental mindset, this way of playing with a large customers base, is exactly what large companies don’t accept because it might mean that customers will be pissed off and not return. They will only jump on an emerging opportunity if it means significant revenue growth, which also means that it has been previously validated by other companies. Basic corporate speak is to not break what works.

But, to innovate you must break what isn’t broken. You must push, and push some more. To innovate, you must embrace experimentation!

From now on, the customer has a voice at the table!

mickey mouse at Blu MayaTo break the dominant risk-averse mindset that has people sit down at a conference table to “make assumptions” about what customers might want, I once did something quite radical to change the conversation…

A few years ago I did an engagement with a company that had been making decisions based on numbers alone, not what was best for the customer. Their process was completely soul-less. Employees were not really engaged, and the results were deplorable. So, I asked myself how I might change the situation.

I caught some luck when a buddy of mine had recently gifted me a plush Sorcerer Mickey (pictured on left), and to figure out how I could use it, I took it to the office. A few days later, I had my idea: take Sorcerer Mickey to my next meeting with this company, position it on the chair next to the President of the company, and announce that Mickey Mouse was going to act as the voice of the customer.

Because I’d been in strategic planning meetings where the voice of the customer is rarely considered, I knew this would shock everyone. And it did!

For two reasons: First, Mickey stands for happiness, and everyone knows that The Walt Disney Company is customer focused. Two, you just can’t argue with Mickey Mouse!

With Mickey Mouse being at the table, conventional speak meetings turned into a “what would Wald Disney do?” exercise without me even having to bring it up.

What was most important though, is how other people in the room felt relieved. These people were customer focused, but were afraid and didn’t know how to put the customer at the middle of the conversation.

So, when I came in and pulled this stunt off, it was as if I had given them oxygen. And from that point forward, the conversation changed. Mickey was always in meetings with us.

What was cool is that after I finished my engagement with them, they went out and bought a Mickey to continue the tradition 🙂

Listen to Your Customers. Don’t Believe Them

Marketing research has taken on a cycle, first as a validation tool, and then as a discovery tool for insights. Today, it’s all over the place. Still, there’s this attitude that the customer doesn’t have an opinion, and that we should just ignore them and shove our products and services down their throats. Sure, we have to nudge them like Starbucks, but completely ignoring them and treating them like numbers on a spreadsheet is the wrong way to look at it.

It isn’t about ignoring them, it’s about listening to them; but not necessarily believing them. And that last part is important because you have to test assumptions. It also important to understand that listening isn’t just about interviewing customers and looking at data, but also about going out and observing them in the context in which they use your product or service.

Anyway, in this day and age when people are more connected to brands (not in a loyal sense but more in a social networking sense), and when these brands have so much data about them, there are privacy and transparency issues that might tick off customers the wrong way. So, brands need to make a concerted effort to keep their customers close.

Listening to them, and making sure you check your ego at the door by both looking for validation and looking out for new insights, before deciding on what is best for them is the way to do it.

Key Points:

  • Big data is not a silver bullet, humans are much more complex than that
  • Get out of the building to listen and observe customers in the context in which they use your products
  • Find a balance between nudging customers towards the future and keeping them happy in the present
  • Observe what your customers do, not what they say
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