Do you know what it's like to walk in your customers' shoes?

Walking in customers shoes
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This is an extract from Ian Golding’s new book, Customer What? You can own a copy by following this link.

Can you describe a day in the life of your customers? Do you know what keeps them up at night?

Knowing what you want and expect as a customer is not the same thing. I am talking about getting close enough, and picking up a clear enough signal to appreciate someone else’s perspective and motivations without judgement or reference to your own point of view.

But if you think you know your customers, you are probably wrong. Even frontline employees can find it remarkably difficult to describe their customers, or what matters to them objectively.

Organisations often make the mistake of thinking that customers spend time thinking about them. Most of the time they don’t. I rarely, if ever, stop to think about what my electricity provider is doing for me. Or whether the packaging on that pair of shoes I just bought was the right colour or thickness.

I have lost count of the number of times people have asked me to tell them who their customers are and what they want. I have developed a useful phrase to respond to this: “I don’t know, but we’re going to find out”.

It took me a while to feel comfortable saying that, because people expect me to know. But the truth is, none of us – even customer experience professionals – are born with an extra well-developed part of our brain which helps us to be naturally insightful.

The benefits of insight

Being comfortable to not know something, and admit it with an “I don’t know” gives us the freedom to seek insight. Having insight helps us to be objective and make good decisions. Together with the right culture, insight helps us develop empathy and make customer-focused decisions.

Organisations often make the mistake of thinking that customers spend time thinking about them. 

One of my clients is a major supplier of delivery services for eBay. This company is very committed to customer experience and absolutely understands what is required, but the majority of employees don’t use eBay. They don’t understand how it feels to be an eBay trader and how important it is to a trader’s reputation and future sales for the delivery to go to the right place at the right time. As a result, it’s very difficult for them to empathise with the customer, or understand the best course of action when things don’t go to plan.

Early in my career, I was employed by an online retailer. We sold mainly clothing, and I noticed that very few of my colleagues chose to wear the clothes we sold. Consequently, very few of them, particularly senior managers, actually knew what it felt like to be a customer. We set about changing this, with a very generous staff discount and a request for help by trying the shopping experience, trying our products, and helping us improve.

There was never a three-line whip, or even an expectation that our people would automatically become customers, but uptake was huge. And before long my inbox, as Head of Customer Experience, was overflowing with comments, suggestions and requests from colleagues. I will never forget the glow of satisfaction I felt hearing a colleague discussing a dress with a customer, saying she had one just like it and was confident the customer was going to love it.  

The danger of over-engineering

Walking in your customers’ shoes is a horribly overused phrase. But if a business wants to transform its culture, it is vitally important that it becomes a practice, not just something that is said. It means understanding what customers’ day-to-day lives are like, and appreciating the context of what we do for them and how we fit in. We need to understand their life to serve their life.

There are situations where it is not possible for just anyone to become a customer; for example in the pharmaceuticals industry, or business-to-business organisations. In these scenarios customer research and insight must act as a bridge between people and customers.

I’m not about to launch into a thesis on customer insight methodologies. That’s a specialism in its own right, and one for a book on market research to cover. But I want to make an important point. Human beings are complex, fickle, irrational, and often inarticulate. They come in all shapes, sizes, and emotional states which defy being neatly labelled and filed away.

Market researchers do an incredible job of making insight digestible and succinct for senior executives. In fact, they sometimes do too good a job. Unstructured data gets passed through many different filters and lenses, structuring, justifying, and intellectualising until a single number pops out the other end. But by that stage the humanity has been smothered by over-engineering, and the insight has lost all of its power to engage us on an emotional level.

The reality is that insight is a nuanced, rambling, and messy affair, so while robust quantitative data has its place what we really need is rich, memorable storytelling insights. We need an opportunity to get to know customers, in their natural habitat, in the wild – not by reading a report on how they scored when they answered 20 questions about our website, or by finding out whether they would recommend our product to friends and family.

Unstructured data gets passed through many different filters and lenses, structuring, justifying, and intellectualising until a single number pops out the other end...ut by that stage the humanity has been smothered by over-engineering

A day in the life

One of my clients, a pharmaceutical business in India, recognised that it didn’t know very much about its customers. Selling over-the-counter products to pharmacies, the business rarely encountered its customers at all, or felt it understood the customer journey. In fact, the organisation tended to see customers as a collection of ailments to be treated.

Having recognised this gap in its knowledge, the business decided to go about addressing it. Each member of the leadership team committed to spending one day a month in the home of one of their customers.

By doing this, they were able to observe customers in every aspect of their lives. What they learned not only transformed the way they communicated with each other and their people. It changed their decision-making.

The business is still driven by the business strategy and an understanding of shareholder expectations, but it is now balanced by the confidence that comes from having authentic, personal insight into what its customers want from the business and an ability to make conscious choices around when and how it will meet, or exceed, those needs.

Ian Golding’s new book, Customer What? is available to buy here 

About Ian Golding

Ian Golding

Ian Golding is a Certified Customer Experience Professional. A highly influential freelance CX consultant, Ian advises leading companies on CX strategy, measurement, improvement and employee advocacy techniques and solutions. Ian has worked across multiple industries including retail, financial services, logistics, telecoms and pharmaceuticals and has deployed CX tools and methodologies all over the world. An internationally renowned speaker and blogger on the subject of CX, Ian was also the first to become a CCXP Authorised Resource & Training Provider.

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