Step up your quest by researching the experience

Kodwo Manuel
  • “You can observe a lot just by watching” — Yogi Berra

The culture of paying attention to the customer’s needs is a worthwhile undertaking that deserves great attention to detail. Many companies avoid the in-depth investigation of customer experience for one reason or another.

One common reason for this is that they find the pursuit of uncovering deep emotional connections to products and services an unnecessarily daunting endeavour, so instead, they focus on operational efficiency and short-term gains.

Taking time to investigate and research customer needs will shift you away from what researcher’s term ‘organizational navel-gazing.’ It will shift your mindset from ‘inside-out’ to ‘outside-in’. Clearly, by undertaking well-planned research you will be better placed and confident in your analysis as this leads you to informed conclusions and decisions as opposed to outcomes based on conjecture.

Peter Drucker the ‘Father’ of modern management said “The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it sells him. One reason for this is, of course, that nobody pays for a ‘product’. What is paid for is satisfaction.” Therefore the goal of any company in the business of delivering a product or service should be to uncover the value customers believe they are getting. Companies quickly turn to Big Data analysis to help them understand how to navigate the market. The truth though is that as much as quantitative knowledge is critical it only tells part of the story when it comes to dealing with the customer. We must go beyond this to try and find out also which qualities matter to customers. Experiential research is a balance between formulating a perspective based on customers’ behaviour towards a brand and drawing quantitative data to better understand them. Researchers in attempting to get the balance right have proposed several approaches to understanding the customer to better place their offerings. These include (and not limited to) tracing digital footprints, observations and boundary spanners, induction of customer expressions, mystery shopping, and online communities.

Tracing digital footprints

By surfing the internet, you will have access to valuable information about a brand. Patrons will freely express their opinion about products and services such that you will be able to learn how customers use a product when they buy it, for whom they buy it, when and where they buy it, how they buy it, how they pay for it and how they consume or dispose of it. Using this method a researcher can trace patterns and access opinions that a customer may hesitate to share during a survey. Experts posit that doing this helps to understand what customers feel or do about substitutes for your brand. An example they cite is Coca-Cola, that it doesn’t only compete with Pepsi, but it also competes with bottled water, therefore understanding the relationship customers have with bottled water is important to enabling Coca-Cola to follow the right marketing strategy.

According to a Harvard Business Review report, revenues will potentially rise as a consequence of high ratings by customers regarding exceptional experiences. A car hire company improved the performance and profitability of its airport service by tracking the “journey” customers took from booking to fronting up on the counter and finally driving off in a car. Being intentional about your interest in the behaviour and experiences of your customer exposes you to great insights that ultimately reflect in your bottom line.

Observations and boundary spanners

The relationship between customers and the business hardly follows any known script. There is a disconnect between what customers want and what executives think but even more intriguing is the fact that what customers say they want and what they want is never the same.   To lay hold on to the truth it is imperative that we observe them throughout the actual purchase, consumption, and disposal stages. A ‘boundary spanner’ refers to any agent of a company who works on the frontline of the value chain. This means s/he is in direct contact with the customer. These will include Sales representatives, service department staff, customer service representatives, call centre agents, cashiers, bank employees, reception staff at hotels, concierges, reservation personnel, and flight attendants for an airline. These people interact directly with customers and are privy to what both satisfies and disappoints them.

Managers in boundary-spanning positions must provide leadership in the creation of superior new product development performance. They are often people with great interpersonal relationships and are quick to broker friendships and would normally engage in conversations that would typically lead them to learn something vital from a customer. The goal is to consistently assess your customer’s expectations of your service by constantly appraising what is the norm from their perspective. For example, if you were Ethiopian airlines how would your clients compare you to AWA airlines? How quickly do the best webpages refresh? How long do you have to wait for your passport to be processed etc? One way to keep abreast of the effect of changes in customer satisfaction is to hold monthly meetings during which boundary spanners can pass on what they have observed to management. Having an employee webpage can be useful for collecting critical experiential data or hand them a weekly ‘Customer Response’ questionnaire. Insights gathered from boundary spanners are valuable in helping a company excel in its quest to be customer-centric.

Induction of customer expressions (Experiential Expression Sessions)

Usually, customers are unable to consciously memorize details about what they think feel or do, therefore if asked by someone they will be unable to provide the full picture of their consumption experience. To address this you adopt a tool known as the Experiential Expression Session (EES). It is a useful tool for getting customers to recall details about their experience when they came into contact with a particular brand. Here researchers recruit a group of customers and go over all the consumption stages of the product or service with them. Customers are recruited based on their persona (a generalized representation of your typical customer) as identified by the researchers. During a typical EES session customers are urged to share their impressions describing precisely how they feel about the features of the product. The following is an example of an EES session.

“I see that the iron is white. I like that; it makes me think of crisp, clean clothes, and the black end adds a fashionable look to the iron. The handle has small indentations that help me grip the iron comfortably and safer.” The EES session is flexible and applicable to any product or service. These sessions are normally impromptu, however, information gathered from the interactions are invaluable, able to produce exceptional experience data for planning and revising your touchpoints.

Mystery shopping

In mystery shopping, companies hire individuals to visit their stores (or go to their website) and act like the average customer. They are normally given certain guidelines to follow. In a store, they may be required to interact with one or two salespeople and provide feedback on how they were treated. They would be interested in the salesperson’s approach or attitude such as whether they took time to answer their questions or if the interaction was minimal or not particularly helpful. This exercise must be approached objectively to arrive at a fair conclusion as these encounters even in real life can be tricky. I walked into a bank once to cash some money transferred to me from another country, during the conversation with the bank teller I mentioned to her when she asked about my profession that I was a teacher (well a trainer is a teacher as well). She suddenly changed her attitude, it was a Friday and I was casually dressed, I am not sure I enjoyed the encounter. Had I been a mystery shopper that would have been a great learning experience to report back on, however, I must caution myself to avoid any subjectivity should I find myself in any mystery shopping context [sic].

Contrasting this experience the next time around I decided to use a different bank for that transaction. The computer system was playing up and so transactions were delaying. The lady at the counter politely called me and explained the challenge to me. She advised that I tried another bank and that she would be happy to serve me if I faced the same difficulty elsewhere. These 2 contrasting experiences offer great insights for researchers reviewing experiences the average customer faces at touchpoints. The benefit for companies is that data from mystery shopping can easily be graphed and analyzed to identify pain-points as well as parts of their value stream engaging customers the best.

Online communities

The internet offers great opportunities for us to mine customer insights. An online community offers a platform that provides a wealth of information for companies and pleasure for participants. Many of these platforms are set up by brands themselves to hear audibly the “voice of the customer.” The atmosphere is generally casual thus users are free to express their true feelings about products and services. This environment presents great opportunities to harvest new insights and collect experiential information. It is a very useful forum where brand users and decision-makers can potentially work together to address issues. By taking quick polls they are better able to track the sentiments and opinions of customers, glean data that will help make certain specific decisions and improvements, and perhaps even engage customers in co-creating new offerings. The following examples are worth noting

Visa created an online community to foster collaboration: they needed a way to connect external developers to the Visa Developer Team so that the two groups could interact and inspire each other and so that information could be freely shared. Visa’s community has been hugely successful by internal company measures, including a 1,300% increase in kudos from its members. Singapore-based information-communication brand StarHub wanted to evolve its social media strategy. Existing social platforms didn’t allow StarHub the freedom and flexibility they needed to build long-term relationships with their customers, but their online community did. Great online communities can support collaboration between members outside of the brand and employees within, leading to a stronger brand.

When performing research on customer experiences, companies should first apply qualitative analysis in-depth interviews, focus groups, EES, etc. Then they should integrate quantitative methods such as regression and other forms of (quantitative) analysis. Experts advise that the methods that are applied do not necessarily make the research proper or improper. Rather it is the company’s objectives, mindset, and philosophy while employing these methods that render research proper or improper.

The Writer is the Managing Consultant at Capability Trust Limited a People and Learning Organisation serving the market with Talent Acquisition and Management, Leadership Development, HR Outsourcing, and General HR Advisory, Training, and consulting services. He can be reached on 059 175 7205, [email protected]/

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