understanding the customer and potential customer

Empathy can and should impact marketing at three levels – understanding, engagement and behaviour management. It is essential to start by embracing empathy as an avenue to understand customers and potential customers better. Ideally, this will involve developing an appreciation of how customers and potential customers think and feel – and what they will respond to.

  1. Learn from watching your customer use your product in their context. 

A business developing a new home improvement product talked to 35 participants to find out what they were struggling with within their yards. Each participant narrated a video tour of their yards using their smartphone. They specifically discussed what they liked and disliked about various products – in the content of their own back yard and their requirements.

The research team then reviewed the transcripts focusing on what consumers thought of products while seeing them active in their yards. The process enabled the research team and, ultimately, the business more broadly, to gain critical insights into how participants were thinking and identify opportunities. 

A video analysis tool (Digsite) facilitated the process, making the analysis relatively straight forward. With instant transcriptions, teams were able to create video clips and share them with colleagues enabling everyone to begin the process of developing empathy for their target audience.

This example highlights the value of observing your customer interacting with and or using your product in the customer’s context – providing insights that market research might not be able to identify.

Watch your customer using your product in their context.

  1. Use market research – but take care not to understand the answers too quickly. 

Henry Ford is reported to have said – ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.’ He said this in an attempt to question the value of market research. More recently, Steve Jobs is reported to have derided market research – ‘…because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.’

I am far convinced that either man uttered either statement. However, both innovators question the value of market research – at least so far as it might be used to identify consumer needs. I agree with them and along these lines would argue that:

  • Market research is not an effective way of identifying what consumers want because they generally do not know or cannot articulate what they want.
  • However, market research is a potentially effective tool for identifying the problems that consumers are having or have had.

It is the role of marketers and innovators to understand consumer problems identified in market research and identify a commercially viable solution.

On the last pint, it is reported that Steve Jobs commented – ‘Give customers what they want. But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do.’ Research might then help determine the likely response to our solution.

Market research has many limitations. Response rates to quantitative research are now so low and so skewed that many are questioning its value. Consider recent political polling. The effects of groupthink and ego cast considerable doubt on the value of focus groups. That said, market research remains a useful tool for understanding customers – given that you have appropriate expectations, use the right method, and ask the right questions.

I am a fan of market research and view it as a valuable tool for developing an understanding of customers that can build empathy, especially where it:

  • It examines the past and the present.
  • Involves one to one in-depth interviews.
  • Tests tangible propositions.

While recognising its limitations, use market research to understand customers and potential customers better. 

  1. Take the time to watch consumer and study their behaviours.

An increasingly popular tool for understanding customers and developing empathy is observational research. Observational research is – a qualitative method of collecting and analysing information obtained through directly or indirectly watching and observing others in natural or planned environments.’ Zoho describes observational research as the first essential step in developing a marketing strategy.

Observational research techniques include:

  • Covert – where the researchers do not identify themselves – and stand back and watch.
  • Overt – where the researchers identify themselves and explain the purpose of their work.

Both approaches are used to:

  • Observe shopping behaviour in-store.
  • Study the customer journey and identify touchpoints.
  • Identify the purchase options considered by consumers.
  • See how consumers use or apply products. 
  • Uncover new product opportunities.
  • Test and validate ideas.

Many suggest that observational research needs to involve experts with considerable training. I disagree. While it is important to know how to observe objectively, independently, and comprehensively, most informed businesspeople can use observational research. Indeed, all staff should be encouraged to and given the avenues for reporting on customer behaviours.

Use observational research to understand customers and potential customers better.

  1. Embrace marketing automation – to develop and reflect empathy. 

Here are some statistics worth pondering:

  • 75% of marketers report using at least one marketing automation tool.
  • 9% of marketers use automation tools to improve the customer experience.
  • 77% of marketing automation users report increased conversion rates.

These findings point to the growing popularity of marketing automation, its value as a research tool and the capacity of the data collected to facilitate higher sales. Businesses have the capacity to collect and may collect huge amounts of data about customers and potential customers that can be used to develop a more comprehensive understanding of:

  • The customer.
  • The customer journey and touchpoints.
  • Customer needs and expectations.

Data of value might include:

  • Instore traffic flows.
  • Website traffic and dwell times.
  • Email opening rates and click-throughs.
  • Purchase, repeat purchase, and referral behaviour.

There is real merit in bringing this data together into a central database and then using it to:

  • Fine-tune marketing strategies.
  • Fine-tune media and messaging.
  • Customise all aspects of marketing.

All three facilitate empathy and while the third is a powerful demonstration of the power of marketing automation. Marketing automation can reduce marketing costs and increase results for a relatively modest outlay on software and hardware.

There is virtually no business in 2021 that should not use marketing automation to gather and collate customer data and then use that data to customise strategies and implementation. 

  1. Where you cannot experiment – learn from the experiments of others.

Research undertaken at Columbia University found that when presented with a choice of 24 jam flavours, 3% of subjects made a purchase. By contrast, when presented with just six flavours, 30% made a purchase.

While intuition might tell us that the more choice we offer, the better – this is just one of the hundreds of research and empirical studies that demonstrates that purchases are higher when the number of options is fewer. Research suggests that most products’ optimal number of choices is between three and seven, depending on the product category.

This research suggests two critical points:

  • The power of experimentation.
  • The power of consumer insights.

There are now volumes of research demonstrating the weaknesses associated with intuition and the fact that intuition is almost the anathema of empathy.

Businesses, including relatively small businesses, can readily carry out experiments of this nature. Where such research is not possible, for whatever reason, there is now a growing catalogue of experiments from Universities around the world, which can provide the data without the need for another experiment.

There is also a growing catalogue of neuro-psychology research. Consumer responses do not rely on observation or consumer reports but rather on brain activity, making it more reliable. Such research is beyond the capability of most businesses but can be readily accessed through journals and books. Neuroscience is the new frontier for experimental research in marketing.

Use consumer insights and experimentation to understand customers and potential customers. 

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