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Your Customer Is Not a Statistic. by@jalehbisharat

Your Customer Is Not a Statistic.

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Jaleh Bisharat

At my startup, we’ve made a decision that may seem odd in this day and age. Especially for a technology company that uses data science to power its offering.

We’re spending countless hours getting to know our customers on a personal level.

And by “personal,” I mean personal.

The reason? While aggregated customer data delivers important insights, I’ve seen companies rely increasingly — even exclusively — on numbers. If this trend continues, we’re at risk of forfeiting something vital: understanding customers as people.

Data analysis is perfect for telling you WHAT customers are doing. It can even predict what they’ll do in the future. But it doesn’t tell you WHY they’re doing it.

Heatmaps to show you where users linger on a webpage, A/B tests to compare conversion rates, and social media analytics to zero in on the ideal targeting. The numbers have a precision to them and it’s exciting when they tell a compelling story.

Except that the story is not complete.

Because human desires are not — and never will be — entirely quantifiable.

So, my co-founder and I decided to talk to every customer willing to take the time.

This would help us get inside her head — as well as guide what data we should be collecting, measuring and optimizing for.

We’ve done in-depth interviews with more than 100 women in less than a year. Time consuming? Yes. Time well spent? Nothing could have been more important. Our decisions are profoundly influenced by a veritable mountain of learning in the form of opinions, feelings, concerns, and insights.

Every company can gather “human-driven insights.” Here’s how:

1. Talk live to customers, or prospective customers, at least twice a week

Phone interviews are just one format. You can, for example, conduct research in their workplaces, in their homes, in shopping malls, and by bringing them together in your home. Just be sure you’re in a position to listen and learn.

2. Identify WHAT will change your actions

Before crafting your line of questioning, write down what will change based on what you learn.

Will it affect your offering? Your positioning? Your pricing? Whether or not to introduce a new product?

This upfront thinking can be hard work. But if you don’t do it, you run the risk of learning “nice-to-knows” that don’t inform next steps.

3. Clarify WHOSE feedback will drive your actions

Talking to the right people is critical. And who is right depends on your business.

Whom you talk to might turn on whether or not they have pets, are within a certain age range, influence technology decisions for their company — or any other criteria that separate the people you most need to understand from everyone else.

Start with qualifying questions (example: “Do you have a pet?”) and politely end the interview if the person doesn’t meet your criteria.

4. Write down your hypotheses

Articulate your current beliefs or hypotheses. This will help you design the learning to either challenge or validate these assumptions.

Examples: “Women who consume organic food are predisposed to embrace non-toxic beauty products,” or “Prospective customers believe a higher price equates to higher quality.”

5. The one thing you should not write out is your questions

Sound counterintuitive? Hang with me here. This is qualitative research, where you’ll probe deeply into any nuggets that arise.

Of course you should outline the topics you’ll cover in advance. You do need to control the conversation, make sure you touch on key topics and gently reorient her if she’s going down a rathole.

But don’t read out pre-canned questions like a pollster. Listen carefully, follow where she takes you and pull the learnings out of a conversation. What you get back will be richer.

6. Be dispassionate

It’s insanely hard, but you have to do it. This is because the cards are stacked against the truth. People generally want to be nice and to tell you want you want to hear.

So, for heaven’s sakes, don’t let them.

Explain that you are, for now, the research department and nothing she says can hurt your feelings. That the biggest gift she can give you is honest feedback, including criticism and negative opinions.

She will still fail to give you the full truth if you do any of the following:

  • Appear happy with positive comments
  • Seem disappointed with negative comments
  • Indicate, however subtly, what you hope to hear
  • Attempt to solve her problems
  • Indicate that she’s misunderstood your company/offering
  • Explain how things will be fixed in the future

Just be deeply curious about what she really thinks.

You’re her therapist and have no opinion.

Her perception of reality is the only thing that matters. Make sure you fully understand it.

You can celebrate, complain, or adopt any other manner of emotion AFTER she’s out of earshot.

In the meantime, keep your eye on the prize: getting inside your customer’s DNA so you really know her. And so you can create those rare, loyalty-inducing experiences where she feels truly and deeply understood.

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