Customers : How Close Do You Need To Get?

Image of woman looking at label on a package in store.

How close are you to your customer or consumer? Could you get closer? Would you be prepared to spend some time in a fat suit? And old–age suit? The relevant simulation for your industry - to experience what life is like for people with those characteristics? How valuable would an experience like that be to you?

I imagine you have huge demands on you to deliver short term results to your business. Nevertheless, how do you react when you’re invited to ‘get involved’ in the research phases of an innovation project with which you’re connected?  Perhaps they want you to attend research groups, undertake some voice of the customer interviews, be involved in an ethnography project? Perhaps to witness a conflict panel or a passion panel or join a visit to another business that is analogous with the new market that the innovation project is concerned with.

Do you think of all the other things you have to do – and much as it sounds useful, say: ‘ Let me know when the presentation will be?’

It’s understandable. Is it also a mistake?

First Hand Experience of Customers is Powerful.

How does powerpoint or any other type of presentation compete with the first hand experience of meeting customers? Observing them? Or doing something as insight-provoking as spending time in an Age-explorer suit that enables you to endure the difficulties that older people deal with every day?

Words are poor substitutes for experience. Even the most eloquent researcher can only point to the challenges of an aging population. Even with pictures you are still a stage removed from the experience.

Well, the research phase of the project will be over in a few weeks you reassure yourself.

Enduring Value For the Whole Innovation Project.

But maybe that type of thinking obscures the enduring value to a whole innovation project that ‘getting close to the customer’ offers. The understanding accumulated through direct experience can inform the insight phase, the invention phase, packaging design, channel strategy and of course communication and internal selling and… the execution phase.

“Getting closer to the customer” prevents the team making mistakes that could adversely impact on the performance of your invention in multiple ways. As a simple start, how many young marketers do not understand that in some lighting conditions in retail outlets, prescription spectacles do not fully correct the vision problems of older people. Fonts on packaging are often far too small! If older people cannot read pack information – are they going to buy it? Great product perhaps - shame they never got to try it.

The Age-explorer suit has been designed by the Berlin Evangelical Geriatrics Centre and the Meyer Hentschel Institute. The primary objective was to enable trainee doctors to get a better understanding of what life is like for older people. Wearers of the suit experience the joint stiffness, poor eyesight, reduced hearing and lack of manual dexterity that older people suffer from. It has also been used to help with product development.

Technology will bring us many more interactive ways to simulate the life of our customer. However, none of the individual techniques will likely triumph over any other method. In gathering market understanding for innovation we suggest you :-

  1. Draw on a number of sources to gather information, from experiential to observational. Include projective techniques – using analogy and metaphor, diary recall etc.
  2. Make time to be involved. Other team members will make their own connections during the research phase, but your connections will be unique – the project will be poorer for not having your input.

A key thing to ensure is that along with an intellectual understanding of the customers’ problems and needs, we get an emotional understanding of it too – that way compelling propositions are developed.

This is where simulations and tools like the Age–explorer suit can really help.

The emotional aspects of the research are more likely to get lost when research is transcribed and presented in powerpoint. Video and audio clips can of course help. But just by being there, you feel the  emotional charge of your customer’s attitudes and behaviours. That’s something that can resonate for a long time,

Give up an evening or an afternoon to "get closer to the customer"? The time when you could move further down your ’to do’ list. It’s often easier to prioritise immediate internal demands over demands to look outside of your organization.  What's more, it’s hard to change the priorities alone - such dilemmas go to the heart of what an organization values.

Encourage Others to Value "Customer Closeness".

 If you want to ‘get closer to the customer’ you’re probably going to have to encourage others to value ‘getting closer to the customer’.

Suggested Action

  • Champion ‘customer closeness’ in your team and organization.
  • Include ‘customer closeness’ in Key Performance Indicators – so it competes fairly for your time with your other objectives.
  • Encourage participation in formal sessions and also suggest that team members generate their own ideas for how they can informally observe or experience their customer’s world on an ad hoc basis– e.g. picking the brains of a family member or friend who would fall within the target group.
  • Before attending an observation or experiential session ‘get into a resourceful state’. Curiosity, openmindedness and playfulness are a few suggestions.  

Read more about the Age-explorer suit.

© AnatellÔ 2012. All rights reserved.


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