The 5 Essential Rules of Customer Observation for Greater Business Success

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One of the best ways I know to understand your customers is to watch and listen to them whenever you can. Customer observation is a powerful, but unfortunately an under-utilised tool these days. So when was the last time you got intimate with your customers? If it wasn’t in the last week or two, you’re not getting out enough!

Before going on, I should explain that I use the word “customer” to describe the person who buys and / or uses your product or service. For the B2B business, the recommendations in this article are still valid, but would be of particular value when you work with your supplier or retailer, to help them to better know their own customers.

It is not surprising that most companies run to conduct market research when they want to know something about their customers. They then (hopefully) invite relevant employees from marketing, sales, packaging, communications or R&D to watch the interviews or group discussions. However, this intense but short observation is likely to do more harm than good.

Let me explain.

Have you ever gone to watch a focus group only to discover that the research confirms your hypotheses? I bet you felt disappointed and even a little irritated that you “wasted” money on the project weren’t you? Well, this may actually be the result of your very own selective listening and interpretation. You watched and listened only to the topics that interested you. You were looking for confirmation of your hypothesis. But there was so much more you could have understood if only you had bothered to listen.

True understanding comes from regular interaction with your customers, not just from an infrequent observation or two. Here are some ideas on how to do this more effectively.

Make customer observation everyone’s job

There are many, many opportunities for every employee in an organisation to come into contact with their customers. In a customer-centric organisation, everyone has annual objectives which include connecting with customers on a regular basis. This could be by:

  • listening to calls at the care centre
  • reading posts on social media and message boards
  • participating in / watching promotions, demonstrations, sampling in retail outlets
  • joining market research fieldwork

Some organisations also make a habit of getting their employees to watch and listen to their customers in direct observation or connection sessions. However, these need to be managed carefully in order to avoid people jumping too quickly to incorrect conclusions, as I’ll explain in more detail below.

Customer observation is not as easy as it looks!

There is a very well-known example of the challenge of observation, in a video showing two teams of young people passing a couple of balls around. If you haven’t seen it you can check out the  Awareness Test and try it for yourself.

In the exercise, people are asked to count the number of passes made by the team in white, so that is what the observer will concentrate on. In the background, a man dressed as a bear, moon-walks his way across the screen, but most people are oblivious to the fact. They are so busy looking for the answer to the question, that they miss this significant event in the short video.

Exactly the same can happen when people watch and listen to customers. They are so concentrated on finding the answer to their question, or worse the substantiation of their own beliefs, that they miss a lot of what is actually going on.

If they were to actually listen objectively, they might hear something new. And this might lead them to a significant breakthrough in customer understanding.

For this reason, it is essential to run a careful briefing session before every observation exercise. This way people go into it with their eyes and brains fully open. Your Insight team can manage this in most cases, but to summarise what needs to be covered, I have listed below the five rules of observation.

The five rules of customer observation

1. ORDINARY: Look for the ordinary not the extraordinary, but do note the things that surprise, as these can challenge your preconceptions and help you to keep an open mind. Identify also the details of the ordinary event, things that were never noticed or thought about before.

You may see people finding ways to get around a problem or pain point they have. These may offer opportunities to increase satisfaction, either by resolving them or by developing a new product or service.

2. ATTENTIVE: Be careful to record only what you see and hear. Don’t start analysing what you think is going on or you will certainly miss something.

If you are running observation sessions yourself, it is important to define roles for every company participant.

One person should lead the session, making sure the moderator is covering all the topics and in the depth required.

One person can take notes, making sure to summarise the discussions and noting as many details as is possible. Recordings will anyway be available afterwards, but it is always useful to have these notes for the discussions that always happen immediately after the event.

And on person can actively observe and perhaps take pictures (no flash!) of any drawings, lists or other materials developed by the participants. Again these should be available after the event, but you’d be surprised how many people want to take their contributions home to show family and friends.

With these different roles covered, the discussions after the event will be much richer and more complete.

3. ACCURATE & OBJECTIVE: This is the reason why you need to remain attentive, so you get an accurate record of what is happening. Keep notes of what you see; when, where, and how people behave. Context is as important as the actual discussions to understand where the customer is coming from who made the comment.

If you have direct contact with customers, perhaps by joining in the group or interview room, leave your own preconceptions outside and never judge what is going on.

It is also important not to react openly to what you see or hear. Pay particular attention to your body language. Keep asking yourself (at least at first) why? Even if something appears obvious, the reason may not be what you think it is. So keep asking this vital question.

This form of iterative investigating is often referred to as the Five Whys“. The technique involves asking the question a minimum of five times to ensure you cover every angle. A very useful habit to get into when wanting to understand any situation.

4. TIMING: Observe and understand what is going on before and after the event, as well as during the event you are observing itself. The event and comments made need to be put into the context of time and place within a person’s lifestyle and habits. This is the only way to understand their relevance.

Also, be patient, as people often change behaviour when being watched, at least to start with. Give them a chance to relax and feel comfortable with being observed. Insight colleagues will certainly have mentioned to you at some point, that in qualitative projects, the best comments come out at the end. Participants think the recording is finished and so relax and completely open up!

5. DEBRIEF & ANALYSIS: Observation is most valuable if it is completed by an immediate debriefing session. Observers can together share, ask questions and start to analyse what they have seen and heard.

This is important if several groups have been following similar events such as shopping, leisure-time activities or food preparation, but with different respondents.

Of course, the immediate debrief does not preclude a more in-depth exchange and analysis in the days and weeks to follow. It is amazing what additional understanding comes from “sleeping on it.”

These five points should ensure that everyone enjoys participating in these customer connection sessions. Both you and your customers will benefit from the experience and a maximum number of ideas and learnings will be gathered.

One last point for International organisations; be aware of cultural differences. Explore and understand the culture where the observations are being made, especially if you are not a local. What is appropriate in one culture may be offensive or irrelevant in another.

Checking things out with the locals before going into the field can save a lot of embarrassment – or worse! It is also useful to have local members help in the analysis of what was seen and heard, so that the correct interpretation is made.

If you have run observation or connection sessions and have learned something additional, please share your experiences. I answer all notes and questions personally, usually within a few hours. 

Denyse Drummond-Dunn
Denyse is the Creator of the Quantum Customer Centricity (QC2™) Model. QC2™ is the New CX for organisations that want to find atomic steps that deliver quantum results, attracting, delighting & retaining more customers. Denyse is Nestle’s former Global Head of Consumer Excellence and has >30 yrs’ experience as a Speaker, Advisor and Author. She delivers inspiring keynotes, motivational talks and actionable training. Her global business consultancy, C3Centricity, has expertise in over 125 countries! Check her website and connect to discuss if she would be a great fit for your next event.

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