How To Uncover Your Customer’s Hidden Needs


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Honest feedback from your customers is the best way to improve any hiccups in your Customer Experience. Social norms, however, can get right in the way of getting that honest feedback, at least in some instances. Overcoming the obstacle of social norms is a crucial activity for today’s Customer Experience professionals. We have X surefire ways to get your customers to talk.

I’m sure we have all done the following or something similar. You go to a restaurant and there are problems. Maybe the food takes a long time. Maybe the waiter brings the wrong stuff or forgot to leave the cheese off the burger. It could be that the bill was wrong. As you are getting up to leave the manager comes by and asks, “How was everything tonight?” You say, “Great, thanks!” But it wasn’t great and you aren’t happy, yet everyone is smiling right now.

Why Do We Do This?

My colleague, Professor Ryan Hamilton of Emory University says we do this because of our social norms. We have “unwritten rules” that dictate how we should behave with other people and in the U.K. and the U.S., one of those dictates is that we do not want to invite confrontation or be confrontational with others.

To be honest with the restaurant manager would cost us emotionally because we would feel uncomfortable. Those feelings of discomfort would be compounded by how we know we are making the other person feel. Simply put, it is not worth the discomfort it would cause everyone involved to be honest about our disappointment with the dining experience.

However, later, when we are talking with friends, it costs us nothing to be honest about the experience and does not violate an unwritten rule of interacting with other people. It is then that we let it all hang out. All our disappointment, disgust, and frustrations pour forth like a dam burst of repressed candor.

We have been thinking about this situation thus far as the customer who was unsatisfied and lying about it to save discomfort. What if we picture ourselves as the manager who wants the customer to come back? It is as the manager that we see how this social norm of avoiding confrontation could be costing you a lot more in the customer loyalty and retention department than it does in emotional discomfort. What is worse, we would never know why!

I travel a lot for my work, to all parts of the world and all different cultures. I have learnt in my globe-trotting that this social norm is not in every culture. Some parts of the world do not view confrontation in the negative. Telling the restaurant manager the whole truth is what is expected and “normal” for those cultures.

So….How do we get customers to talk and discover what they need?

We need customers to talk to us in order to uncover their needs. However, unless you manage a restaurant in one of those cultures where honesty is valued even when it is confrontational, getting your customer to talk can be difficult, but no less crucial.

Before I share the suggestions that will elicit the response you really want from your customers, aka, the truth, I want to tell you the secret behind all great customer feedback success stories:

Customers do not bother to tell truth unless they think you are listening to them.

In the best customer relationships, there is an emotional bond and trust, just like in personal relationships. When you know that the other person shares a sincere interest in your happiness, it makes it easier to discuss when you are unhappy. And by that standard, my wife Lorraine must REALLY think I have a sincere interest in her happiness. (Just joking, dear!)

The same is true of your customers. If they overcome the social norm and share with you their honest feelings about their experience and then you do nothing about it, they will not make that mistake again. So, before you decide to implement any of my suggestions, you need to commit to reacting and revising your actions once you get honest feedback.

Now that we understand each other on that fundamental point, here are my suggestions for how to get your customers to talk:

  • Invest a lot of time with customers. One of the best ways to get authentic feedback from customers does not involve fancy math or a psychology degree. If you spend more time than a quick survey, and get to a deeper level of communication, then you can get more perspective on why a customer does what they do and what they really want. In-depth interviews can reveal a lot about what a person really thinks.
  • Recognize when customers are not telling you what they want. Customers do not always tell you what they want because they do not know themselves. Customers might tell you that they want a good price, but after you analyze their behavior, you find customers choose products emotionally; e.g. I want it and it will make me feel better/faster/smarter than I do right now. In a practical sense, this fact means you should ask customers what they want and combine those answers with the data you have on their past behavior to discover what they really want. Professor Hamilton calls this Structural Equation Modeling or what I call, “proving it through the math.”
  • Take an indirect route. When a social norm is interfering with hearing what your customers think, try an indirect question that removes the conflict between the truth and adhering to social norms. For example, if you cannot get a real answer about your product, ask customers to describe a person that would buy your product. In our podcast on this same topic, Professor Hamilton gives an excellent example of this projective technique at work concerning instant coffee in the 1950s.
  • Ensure they notice when you improve something based on feedback. Customers don’t always notice when you change something. It is not that they do not care; it is that they have other things going on in their lives. You must alert customers to changes, explain it was because of their feedback, and describe how the new process improves the situation. Then, customers will feel more inclined to give you honest feedback (because they have been listened to).

Getting customers to talk is not easy, at least not in the U.S. or the U.K. where societal norms tell us to be pleasant with other people. However, getting customers to talk is essential to uncovering their needs and what they really want. This will enable you to deliver the kind of Customer Experience that brings customers back for more. By investing the time, recognizing when you need to dig deeper, trying a few different things and then drawing their attention to when you have acted on their feedback, and you will earn your customers’ trust and honest opinion of what experience you delivered.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


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