Real Customer Understanding is Key to Business Success

A December 2016 report by Forrester Research – “Build Real Customer Understanding: How to Avoid Research Pitfalls and Achieve Insight Instead” – acknowledges that organizations that understand their customers well are more successful at retaining them and attracting new ones.

In their attempts to gain customer understanding, however, many companies over-rely on error-prone self-report methods such as surveys, interviews and focus groups. These approaches overlook key user insights and can lead businesses in the wrong directions, rather than guiding them toward better customer experience (CX) and improved customer interactions.

“The reason that these methods can be particularly problematic is that what people say is not gospel,” said Forrester Analyst Kelly Price, author of the CX report, in episode 81 of Forrester's "CX Cast" podcast. “When you ask people why they did something or what they think they are going to do in the future, the information that we get back is often unreliable, but firms are using that as a basis to make decisions.”

Self-Report Pitfalls to Avoid

Forrester’s research points out the drawbacks of relying too heavily on self-reporting.

First, customers unintentionally deceive themselves when responding through surveys and focus groups, because they typically are unaware of the real reasons for their own behaviors.

Customers can provide unreliable responses on what they will want or how they expect to use – or not use – a product or service in the future, particularly if it’s something with which they have no prior experience.

Researchers also found that people can be swayed by unexpected influences and will “fib to fit in” to avoid seeming out of the loop.

Further, many companies and CX practitioners themselves can “exacerbate self-report errors, making avoidable mistakes that throw their research further off track.” These happen by asking loaded questions, jumping to conclusions, choosing wording that’s open to interpretation, listening to the wrong customers, and interpreting data through a biased lens.

Making Sure Your Research is Reliable

To ensure customer understanding methods are reliable and to gain insights that drive meaningful CX improvements, the Forrester report recommends three vital actions:

  • Incorporate methods - including ethnographic field studies, contextual inquiries, prototyping and usability testing – that reveal what customers don’t know or can’t say about themselves.

  • Watch out for basic errors in interviewing, surveying and validating.

  • Remove internal blinders that prevent insight.

These actions deepen the research and its value to the CX team by going beyond self-report analysis. Observation-based, nonverbal methods – such as watching a participant’s body language – reveal valuable aspects of customer experiences that self-reports fail to capture.

Vice President of Experience Strategy and Insight (ESI) Aliza Gold with projekt202 agrees.

"Complementing data with a deep, observation-based understanding of users or customers is the key way to build strategy based on what customers care about,” said Gold. “It’s how companies can shift from ‘business-as-usual’ to a customer focus. This leads to decisions that result in business success.”

projekt202 has a maxim that observed reality is often different than stated reality. projekt202’s experience researchers and strategists observe people in context – where they work, live or play – to fully understand their goals, needs and motivations. Gold said that this level of research is the foundation of projekt202’s methodology, and requires expert synthesis to develop surprising insights that shift perspectives, such as discovering customer personas and new markets that clients did not know existed.

“This is how we help companies create software that isn’t just a collection of features and functions. It is software that people want to engage with, because it creates real benefit in their lives,” Gold said of projekt202’s approach.

By avoiding self-report pitfalls and utilizing research processes that reveal the reality of customer experiences, she said, businesses will prime themselves for success.

Watch: Applying Ethnographic Research to Software Design

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