Shallow Thinking Ensures That We Get the Kind of Customer Research We Deserve


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There has been much attention paid of late to the fact that most managers are incapable of deep thought. In their recent book, Marketing Metaphoria (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2008), Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman bemoan the fact that marketing managers in particular do not think deeply enough about the subject matter of their field. They offer a number of reasons for this failing, some of them familiar in that they are often associated with the inability of organization to be innovative or creative.

The Zaltmans suggest that several factors conspire to stifle deep thinking, including an aversion to changing one’s mind in the face of new insights, a reluctance to risk short-term performance (and incentives) by thinking differently, and a general lack of genuine insight on which to base deep thought.

James Heskett of the Harvard Business School weighed into the debate, hosting a forum that allowed commentators to offer their own reasons why deep thought is typically not encouraged in organizations. Heskett’s readers confirmed the Zaltmans’ view of the world, peppering their comments with examples of how their own companies discourage the deep probing of complex subjects. Many of their examples related to a single-minded focus on short-term financial performance, an unwillingness to rock the status quo boat, and a tendency on the part of senior managers to discourage creativity amongst their direct reports.

I am most interested in how this tendency toward shallow thinking impacts the kind of research that is done in organizations and, therefore, the quality and depth of information available to managers on which they supposedly base managerial decisions. By thinking superficially about subjects that are horribly complex, there is a tendency in companies to oversimplify and to ask questions that border on the naïve.

Complex issues
In the fields of marketing, sales and CRM, we are dealing with people. Is there anything more complex than the human mind and human behavior? I have long argued when dealing with research clients that the subjects which represent the stock in trade of marketers — satisfaction, value, quality, service, loyalty and, more recently, relationships and experience — are extremely complex and difficult to understand. To reduce them to a single question on a survey or to a single score is to miss an opportunity to truly understand customers and what drives behavior.

I am frankly tired of being told by managers that customers won’t answer long surveys, that they won’t stay on the phone for more than five minutes, that the focus group is dead. Not true. Good research, conducted by skilled researchers, is not only possible but essential if managers are to have the solid, reliable information they need to make decisions relating to their customers.

The problem is that many managers do not know good research from bad. They do not think deeply enough about what information they need, from whom they need to obtain it, and what questions they really need to have answered. They don’t understand the difference between customer data and customer insight. Consequently, they oversimplify and base decisions that address complex subjects on the results of one or two questions on a customer survey, rather than commissioning some solid qualitative research that is intended to obtain deeper insight.

Take customer value for example. I suspect most marketing managers, CMO’s, and even CEO’s would agree that offering value to customers is a good idea and one that is likely to lead to satisfaction and maybe eventually to loyalty. I dealt with a client some years ago who could not get his mind past a definition of customer value as value for money — “how do you feel about what you get from us for the prices you pay?” Simple. A couple of questions on a survey would allow him to conclude that 17% of customers thought that value for money was excellent; 22% thought it was pretty good, but 41% thought it was poor. Now what?

A series of focus groups allowed us to demonstrate to that client not only the factors that contributed to the customer’s assessment of value, but the fact that customers actually were able to talk about 14 different types of value, not simply value for money. This opened the door for the client to begin to really sink his teeth into the building of a value creation strategy. The client now had customer insight where he previously had data.

Next time someone at your weekly management meeting floats a Customer Sat score or the latest NPS, do yourself and your company a favor; start asking some probing questions about what lies behind the score. Who knows where that might lead and what neat things you might find out about your customers.


  1. Jim, I agree. All too often people make decisions with only part of the answer. Only yesterday I was talking with a CEO who definitely knew what Customers wanted and didn’t need any research to tell him. He was going to base a great deal of time and effort on this educated guess. What if he is wrong? In my last article for Customer Think I discuss the subconscious experience that needs research.

    Colin Shaw
    International Author. Lastest book “The DNA of Customer Experience”


  2. Jim

    First, I have to own up. I haven’t read the Zaltmans’ book, so maybe my comments are redundant.

    My experience is that many marketing managers don’t know the right questions to ask, they don’t know much about research methods other than surveys, they don’t understand simple descriptive statistics other than the mean, they haven’t got the foggiest clue about multi-variate statistical analysis, they cling on to the parts of the report that align with their preconceptions.

    On behalf of marketing faculty everywhere, I accept the blame for this. I spent many years teaching marketing research to aspiring marketing managers, and I should have done a better job.

    Francis Buttle


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