Is Your Customer Intelligence a Crystal Ball or Just a Rear View Mirror?


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“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree’
How ya gonna keep ’em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin’ the town.”

This 1914 song by Andrew Bird was a hit as U.S. soldiers returned from World War I. The song captured the concern of farmers whose sons left their plows and cows to fight a war opening their eyes to new experiences and altering their desire to return to the routine and dullness of rural life. The sentiment also reflects the concern of service provider when serving customers who just returning from “Paree” or Zappos or Nordstrom or Cirque du Soleil.

Customers judge service based on their perceptions. And, perceptions are made up of customers’ needs, myths, aspirations, experiences, hopes, beliefs and values. Best-selling author Tom Peters wrote: “Customers perceive service in their own unique, idiosyncratic, emotional, irrational, end-of-the-day and total human terms. Perception is all there is.” Perception uses the customer’s history to shape their future expectations.

Seeing (and Wanting) Red Cars

The premise behind Laura Goodrich’s book “Seeing Red Cars” is simple; once you buy a red car, you seem to see red cars everywhere. Customers are the same; once they see greatness is possible they sharply notice when it is absent. But customers go one step beyond just seeing red cars; they also want a red car so to speak. Their experiences get bundled not only into their perceptions shaping their observations but in their desires as well. Assume your customers go to Disney and then are greeted by your employees. They don’t just notice the gap between your employees’ disposition and the magic of the Magic Kingdom, they are now puzzled by why they cannot get from your employees what they got from Mickey. It is this expectation-changing that makes disruptor watching so crucial today.

Disruptors don’t just create unique experiences; they birth new customer expectations. Soldiers returning from the war did not just desire to head off to the lights and glitz of “Paris-like” Broadway in NYC, they returned with enriched expectations of how every aspect of their life was to be lived. Amazon does not just alter our expectations for websites that are easy; they cause customers to generalize their Amazon experiences to expectations for ease of service in every component—the simplicity of paperwork, the speed of product delivery, and the ease of invoicing.

Shyp is a small upstart seeking to disrupt the way customers ship packages. Download their app, take a photo of the object to be shipped, and within twenty minutes a Shyp hero (a.k.a., associate) shows up at your door to take your package and prepare it for shipping. You know whom it will be before you hear the doorbell educated by the app (much like an Uber driver). Their box maker customizes the container lowering your shipping costs by reducing weight. They select the best routing based on your preferences. Your cost: $5 plus the cost of shipping. So, now what do you think of the Postal Service or the local UPS Store? How about your mailroom? And, if Shyp can do this at such a bargain, how about your grocery store, dry cleaner or pharmacy?

Learn Customers’ Aspirations not Just Their History

Customer intelligence gathering is a sometimes occurrence for many organizations. An annual survey is sent out or a set of quarterly focus groups is conducted fooling leaders into believing they know about changes in expectations. Imagine going to your doctor with a lump you feel in your upper body. You would be shocked if your physician said, “We did a cat scan of that section when you had your physical ten months ago and you were just fine.” Customer expectations can change a fast as lump in your upper torso. It means never-ending learning. It takes finding a myriad of ways to gain real-time customer intelligence in a format that can yield insight and advise action.

But, too often customer intelligence gathering is not only dated, it is focused on history—an assessment via a review mirror. We ask a departing hotel guest, “How was stay?” We tell call center visitors to hold for a brief survey; then proceed to place a “looking back” report card in their hands. But, customers can tell us their hopes and aspirations if we structure the right query. Their insights can provide a platform for invention and innovation, not by telling us how to concoct the next Uber, but what they desire the features of an experience to become. “What if” questions could accompany “What was” questions. Evaluation and history could be supplemented with anticipation and dreams.

Get Customers Involved in Creation

How could you improve on a product as simple and pedestrian as a baby bottle? Playtex, Evenflo, Similac, Dr. Brown’s and ThinkBaby have tweaked the hundred-year old design with better nipples, easier handles, and ways to minimize uncomfortable air intake. But, inventor-entrepreneur Jason Tebeau took the baby bottle in a completely different direction. He created a hands-free bottle that left baby independent during feeding time.

It all started when Tebeau’s mom asked, “How do you feed a baby while in a car seat or stroller?” His inventive brain went to work thinking through the mind of the ultimate user. Assembling a group of 40 to 50 babies with parents in tow, Tebeau observed babies interacting with bottles in various stages of the design process as he solved assorted product challenges––how to work with the physics of liquid moving up a tube or how to capitalize on babies’ tendencies to put everything in their mouths and treat every object as a toy.

The end result was the wildly popular Pacifeeder, one of several products from Tebeau’s company Savi Baby. Sold at such retail outlets as Target and Amazon, the bottle became so popular many older babies preferred it to the traditional “lie in mommy’s lap” variety. His customers were intimately involved throughout, even helping determine the appropriate price for his creative product, knowing retailers might see it as “just another baby bottle.” Customers not only care when they share; they help innovate when they are involved.

Remember when you were perfectly fine with the speed of a fax over the pace of a letter? You were okay driving to Blockbusters to pick out your movies. Phone booths were everywhere. You relied on paper maps, the TV Guide, an address book, and a set of encyclopedias. The rate of change in everything, including customer expectations, is growing expeditiously. It is time to recalibrate how we wisely anticipate through the customers’ eyes.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


  1. Thanks Chip for the great article. I totally agree that we should more focus on customer aspirations for the future than just look at the past experiences. Knowing how you did is of course important to fix service problems and improve the current customer journey but does not give real insight to what customers will expect in the future. Meeting and exceeding customers needs tomorrow will produce real winners.

  2. Hi Chip: I see merit to asking aspiration questions, though it’s not easy to execute. One software company I worked with for many years struggled with this issue. When giving demos for prospective customers, the sales reps and managers took diligent notes, especially when prospects offered ideas that started with, “Boy! It would be so great if . . . .” or, “We really need it to work this way . . .”

    The company often custom-developed features and functions according to these visions and stated “wants”, but later they discovered that a significant percentage of enhancements were scuttled after they were put into use, and the original packaged-software features were restored. After that, the company became more circumspect about incorporating ideas, and their selling approach was to first caution prospects about the risks of adding enhancements too early (once developed, the customer bought the enhancement, whether or not it was used long-term – or, used at all).

    How to be agile, malleable, responsive – whatever term you want to use – is a difficult challenge. Listening for customer aspirations, and including them in product design is vital, and it contributes mightily to corporate storytelling. But companies need a way to filter ideas that’s strategic and effective. Not every customer aspiration makes good business sense. And what prospects say they want in the future doesn’t always match what they ultimately pay for.

  3. Thank you, Matti, Andrew and Gautam, for your thoughtful comments. You all make excellent points. Customer intelligence is as complicated and ever-changing as the customers we serve. It is always important to balance customer desires with the pragmatics of what fits our distinctive competence and brand identity. We always want to be great listeners to what our customers say they want. In the end however, it must inform not dictate what we do. That takes business maturity, not just customer attentiveness.


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