Understanding your customer feedback and avoiding self-commoditisation

In a recent conversation with a client team, they proudly commented that the thing customers valued most about working with them was their ‘reliability’. Unbelievably, this was the summary of 25 telephone interviews his team had undertaken as part of a ‘voice of the customer’ exercise. Needless to say, one bland word doesn’t get you very far in terms of market differentiation. Let's face it, all their competitors will be advocating reliability too.

So, how did 25 insightful, rich qualitative interviews become distilled and summarised into such a catch-all, meaningless single word?

As our discussion progressed, I realised the team had done their analysis as a collective white board exercise and had introduced a scoring mechanism to convert their qualitative process into a quantitative one. They had fallen into the trap of analysing the words without the sentiment, ignoring the emotion and the business imperatives of their customers. In this way they neutered the whole exercise and had lost sight of the true value they enable in their customers.

My challenge to them was to go back to their transcripts and look at the whole context of the feedback and not just the sound bites. For example, what does reliability really mean? What did the customers actually say? There is a big difference in sentiment between ‘we rely on your software’ and ‘very reliable, always works when I switch it on in the morning.’ The team had unintentionally introduced their own bias by rounding up facets of ‘reliability’ and dumping them into one bucket. This is how companies commoditise their own value and lose the depth and granularity of their customer insight.

As Futurecurve’s head of research, I have co-designed analytical tools to stop both we and our clients falling into this trap. Our research technique, IPTA™, combines traditional qualitative research methodologies, business experience and psychology tools. I have co-developed this specifically to understand customers: how they think, how they feel and thus why they behave as they do; both consciously and unconsciously. We and everyone using empathetic interviewing techniques can then analyse for meaning; understanding what the most important part of what customers are saying, what they value, regard as expected, and what is not of value.

This connection with customers allows us to put ourselves in our customer shoes because, after all, the customer is the experiential expert. The customer holds the truth of value in their hands. As we reflect on the experience and insight each individual customer shares with us, we can see common themes emerge and begin to assess any divergences.

As for our client, when we eventually took on the analysis of their client feedback for them, we found the customers were describing a level of transparency from the software that enables both managers and users to have a more open, aligned and communicative way of working together to reach their business goals. Now that’s pretty powerful stuff and far more differentiating than ‘reliable’.

How do you understand your customers’ real insights and experiences? I’d love to know.