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Published September 19th 2016

We Ask The Experts: How to Get Closer to Your Customers

We ask industry specialists for their best advice on discovering consumer market insights for today's Ask The Experts article

More than ever before, consumers are now discussing their preferences, needs, likes and dislikes in an open online environment, accessible and easy to analyze if equipped with the right tools.

Understanding the emotions and motivations behind customer behaviors allows marketers to effectively strategize and use those insights to inform business decisions, build better products, tackle customer enquiries more efficiently, and generate more leads.

In our quest for best practices, customer-centricity advice and common challenges encountered by industry experts, we presented them with seven key questions related to their day to day job and they kindly shared their thoughts with us. Let’s have a look.

How can companies become more customer-centric?


Liz Gross – Social Media & Market Research Strategist, Great Lakes Educational Loan Services, Inc.


First, come to terms with why customer-centricity matters to your business. Embark on this journey because you believe customer-centricity contributes to strategic goals, not because it’s a popular catchphrase. Create organizational structures to regularly share customer insights in a way that improves product, service, process, etc. Without these, you’ll have piles of unused data.

Then, gather data. Make sure you have the tools and talent to identify your customers and get to know them—as unobtrusively as possible. Behavior (e.g, on your website), conversations (both with your company and in public online spaces), and demography/ethnography are more authentic than surveys and focus groups.

Don’t just focus on customers in the moment they’re engaged with your product or service—consider them as a person. Get beyond behavior to underlying needs, feelings and emotions.

Share insights drawn from customer data throughout your organization. This could be as simple as identifying a messy web process, or as involved as proposing a new way for customers to communicate with you. Be willing to try new things in response to insights. Measure the results of changes whenever you can.

Never stop listening—customer-centricity is a trait, not a task.

What are the most efficient ways of identifying consumer trends?


Gareth Price – Head of Research & Insight, The Social Partners


The earlier a consumer trend is identified, the more valuable it is. Conversely, the sooner it’s uncovered, the less likely it is to catch on at any kind of scale and become mainstream. However, while consistency is critical in branding, brands also need to be distinctive in their communications.

If we’re all following the same trends and developing the same insights, the resulting homogeneity will render our ads less effective. In advertising, a greater emphasis should therefore be placed on getting to a trend first.

Social media data provides an opportunity to explore and piece together consumers’ wants and needs alongside more structured approaches, like surveys and public data (such as unemployment figures).

Although more subjective, social insight can provide more of a directional understanding and, in that sense, is especially valuable in helping to uncover emerging trends when used in conjunction with other sources.

Social listening is evolving from being a way of tracking what’s being said in relation to specific keywords to what audiences are sharing, who they’re following and what they’re doing more broadly.


How much do you rely on traditional versus social media research in your job?

Wendy Scherer – Managing Partner, The Social Studies Group


I rely on social media for virtually all my research needs, in some form.

Pure social media research can be a cost effective and agile way to track trends, learn the language of our audiences and assess the landscape of an industry, issue or brand.

Some of the most interesting work we do employs social research to augment, validate or challenge traditional research. Because traditional market research is driven by questions, the results are limited by the parameters you set. In social media research, information is gained through observation of the vast discussion without premeditated limits.

This can uncover discoveries and answers that may otherwise have never surfaced.
Even when our clients are set on a primary research, we usually recommend social research to help plan and design the study. As most marketers and researchers know, there is a danger of researcher bias if there are flaws in a survey’s research design.

By casting a wide net with social media research, we have found we can help direct the process impartially with a discovery mindset.

What are the challenges of implementing VOC (Voice of the Customer) programs?


Ron Shevlin – Director of Research, Cornerstone Advisors

ron shevlin

Companies implementing VOC programs typically encounter one of a number of challenges, including:

1) Poorly defined objectives. Often, companies embarking on VOC don’t think through the real reasons for launching a program. Simply getting “feedback” isn’t good enough—is that feedback to be used for improving operations, identifying future product and service needs, and/or evaluating customer satisfaction with past experiences and interactions?

If the stated objective is all three—or more—of those questions, firms will often find that they fall short of their goals in one or more areas.

2) Biased samples. Who, among the customer base, is most likely to respond to VOC surveys? Usually, the most highly satisfied and dissatisfied customers. The result is skewed data. Bias also creeps in other ways: Younger consumers are more likely than older consumers to say they’re likely to refer companies to their friends and family.

As s result, an increase in Net Promoter Score might simply reflect a change in the underlying demographics of the customer base, and not an improvement in performance.

The loudest “voice” of the customer isn’t what they say, but what they do. Too often, however, VOC programs don’t integrate—or even have access to—internal operational and customer behavior data that provide clues to what’s really going inside customers’ heads.

How did market research evolve into customer insights?


Christopher Brooks – Customer Experience Consultant, Lexden Group



Wind the clock back twenty-five years and research had a very different role in corporates. The Research Manager would spread their budget between one way mirrored focus groups and brand tracker studies, reporting back how the company compared to the competition and what products were best received, but with a lag of weeks or months as the data was collected manually analysed. 

But as CRM matured it was recognised customers could be engaged with at any point. Like their sales team counterparts, the research manager now had a ‘real time’ opportunity to collect and process feedback on all manner of customer relationships management.

Armed with a new measurement performance and a vault of supporting verbatim (as customer’s value being effectively asked for feedback) this new granularity informed the emerging ‘Customer Experience’ model making it a viable option.

The forward thinking research houses took advantage incorporating tech specialist capability to collect and report customer feedback. The Voice of the Customer platform had arrived. Integrated into CRM systems it provides arguably the most powerful corporate asset of all; instant customer insight.

The smart researchers tracked this revolution and ensured their technical competences matched their research credentials and the ‘Customer Insight’ Manager was born. 


What are the most effective means of overcoming CMI challenges?


Richard Shotton – Head of Insight, @ZenithOptimedia


The problem with most insight work is its complexity. It’s positioned as requiring big budgets, complex methodologies and the input of specialists. This is a problem for two reasons.

First, it prioritises the process over the outcome, meaning too much time spent collecting data and not enough interpreting it. Second, the perceived expense means it happens too infrequently. So what should we do? We need fast and frugal insight approaches that happen, not once a year, but on every plan.

These approaches could be as simple as interviewing consumers in their homes, spending a day listening in at call centre, or working in-store for a week. Or it could be a bespoke approach.

For a recent brief into incontinence, we wanted to help the planners understand the target audience. We had no budget, so we used a technique I call ‘method planning’. Over a weekend I texted the planners at random times. Each time they received a text they had to stop what they were doing and get to a toilet within two minutes.

This helped the planners understand the experience of the target audience: not only the inconvenience but the sense of being a burden to one’s family.

If marketers embrace fast and frugal techniques, they’ll generate more powerful customer insights.

How is social intelligence changing the market research industry?

Graham Plant – Customer Insights Specialist and Managing Director, Pearl Business Solutions

2352f9bIn today’s digital world, consumers are socially connected and can access, and share, information on demand.

Survey response rates have been on a steady decline over the past few years. On the flip side, consumer sentiment, opinions and attitudes about a huge number of things are filling pages and profiles across all social media channels.

It is no wonder that marketers are questioning the value of traditional market research.

Social intelligence is providing marketers mountains of data and rich insights. Research and surveys still serve an important need for marketers and it is important that survey platforms and processes embrace traditional market research methodologies.

Consumers know that what they say about brands matters. If consumers want to be heard, they don’t have to wait until a market researcher comes knocking, calling or emailing – they can hop on on-line and tell the world. All marketers need to do is listen and engage.

It looks like we’ve just begun scratching the surface in our attempt to uncover the complexities behind understanding customer behaviors, so stay tuned, our next CMI #AskTheExperts article is on its way.

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