The Power of Customer Forensics


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Columbo was a wildly popular television series in the 1970s. Peter Falk portrayed Lieutenant Columbo, a seemingly uninformed and disorganized investigator attempting to unravel a crime. Most episodes started by showing the culprit committing the crime. The entertainment of the program came through watching Columbo meticulously solve the whodunit. His greatest tool was his ability to play naive thus reassuring his target who then unwittingly provided the clues that helped Columbo put the disparate pieces together.

Forensics is the examination of evidence around a crime using a broad spectrum of disciplines to arrive at a conclusion or insight. Customer forensics® is typically used as a postmortem examination of customer information to determine the real cause for the loss of the customer. It asks us to be like Columbo. The understanding gained can point the way to improvements useful in curbing future customer churn or turnover. Customer forensics differs from traditional customer interviews in a host of ways. The following principles can be guidance to the interview component of customer forensics

Focus on Learning, not on Selling

One of the tools most valuable in conducting customer forensics comprises questions to ask a customer you lost (especially one you did not want to lose). Begin the conversation by letting the customer know that your goal is learning, not reclaiming the customer’s allegiance. Be forewarned: If customers smell a backhanded sales call, they will withhold the information you need. If, through your discussion, the customer discovers their perception and feelings are based on faulty beliefs and elect to return, you got lucky. But, let that decision be the result of their insight not your influence.

Start the conversation with a sincere expression of gratitude for their taking the time to spend time on your post mortem. Be clear and forthright about what you plan to do with what you hope to learn from the conversation. If a written report is forthcoming, offer to share it with them. Transparency is a vital climate setter for what could prove to be a frank truth-telling exchange.

Prime the Pump with a Bit of Mia Culpa

Obvious humility is your greatest asset for getting to the truth. Remember how Columbo unraveled his crime suspects. He drove an old car that appeared to be on its last leg. He wore a trench coat that looked like he had used it for a pillow on a restless night. He was extremely apologetic, unassuming, and treated his suspect with great respect, often awe. Suspects, mistaking him for an inexperienced buffoon, revealed way more than they intended.

Humility does not mean self-deprecation or falling on your sword. But, starting with a sincere apology for a mistake you know you or your organization made can take the defensiveness out of an ex-customer bent more on revenge than on revelation. Arguing the facts is not the goal in customer forensics, understanding perceptions and beliefs is the goal. Customers rarely make up their negative feels.

Show Gratitude for Negative Feedback

The hardest part of a customer forensic inquiry is remaining completely non-judgmental. Demonstrate curiosity, not defensiveness. There will be times in the conversation you will want to “straighten customers out” because of inaccuracies on which they are basing their view. Again, your goal is to learn, not to teach, correct, or fix. The more customers talk, the more they tend to talk. The more customers talk about a single subject, the deeper they will go into that subject. Most important, the more customers feel free to focus on their areas of interest or concern, the more will be revealed. The more that is revealed, the more you will learn.

The customer’s propensity to connect rational facts with irrational assumptions is the substance and challenge of service air—the basics of your core offering. A trash filled restaurant parking lot leads to customer assumptions about the quality of the food coming out of the kitchen. It is what led bestselling author Tom Peters to conclude “customers perceive service in their own idiosyncratic, emotional, irrational, end-of-the-day and totally human terms. Perception is all there is.” Service wisdom lies in appreciating the complexity of service air, understanding its impact, and shepherding the details that trigger angst in customers.

Probe and Understand—Go Deep!

We were assisting a large construction company with customer forensics on an important customer who had yanked his business from the company in anger and frustration. One of the goals of the customer forensics effort was to equip our construction company client with tools for future customer intelligence efforts. While sifting through correspondence between the departed customer and the construction company, their marketing director suddenly commented, “We have given this poor customer plenty of reasons to keep him up at night.”

The comment triggered a renewed look at the data––not as evidence of anger, but as examples of fear. The fresh interpretation triggered a deeper, richer understanding of those factors that signaled to the customer that his construction project was in jeopardy. Without the project, his business was at a high risk of bankruptcy. Without his business, his upwardly mobile wife would likely leave him. With a history of heart problems, such a chain reaction could threaten his life. Thus, his outbursts of anger were actually a cover for his fear-laden cries for help—all misinterpreted by the construction company as simply the grumblings of a high maintenance customer.

Get Stories, not Just Facts

A large event services provider learned that their customers’ biggest complaint was a lack of timely arrival in the exhibit booth of shipped exhibit supplies. They did customer forensics to learn more about the issue. The event services provider was responsible for getting an organization’s signs, displays, props, and so forth to the right booth so the exhibitor could get set up before the show or convention. Any delays raised anxiety the exhibitor would be late getting the booth ready and thus poorly represented as conventioneers went through the exhibit hall. A delay also meant there would not be enough time to properly display whatever booth merchandise was to be sold. But, the real concern was often more about how an unprepared exhibitor might appear compared to a competitor already set up in a nearby booth. Once the full emotional impact on the exhibitor was understood by the event services provider, the more ammunition they had to effectively attack the problems causing delays.

Conventional service wisdom is to examine complaints in order to spotlight patterns and trends. Many organizations do complaint-frequency counts in order to ascertain the most prevalent issues that leave customers disappointed. Some use customer focus groups to help gain a deeper understanding of “high priority” customer complaints. Complaint forensics involves looking at complaints with the assumption they are simply a symptom camouflaging the real customer concern.

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.


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