The picture above was taken just after the weekday rush hour in the Frankfurt Am Main train station. The people, symmetry, shapes and colors in the composition caught my eye immediately. For me it’s also a perfect metaphor for customer closeness, where the man in the snack shack stands literally in the stream of people that buy from him, every single day. Many solo entrepreneurs like him have the benefit of talking directly to prospects and customers regularly, and gathering continuous feedback about their offerings, pricing, communications and overall experience.
However, as businesses grow in size and complexity, only a small percentage of staff remain on the ‘front lines,’ which is code for people who actually talk to customers on a regular basis. The rest of the organization learns about customers from market research, third-party reports, distributors and a few anecdotes from field sales. Many in the Marketing function became comfortable being ‘behind the glass’ during focus group sessions where they could only engage with customers through an expensive, professional moderator. Or go on an annual ‘ride along’ with a salesperson and meet with a token handful of customers for a few hours. It was comfortable, safe and easy. And it desperately needed to change.
Let’s take a minute to think about what customer closeness means for Marketers in today’s context, and why it still matters.
Closeness Can Foster Co-creation
Customers today are not satisfied simply being passive consumers of the products and services that companies churn out. They demand to be part of the process, to be involved. The internet made crowdsourcing cheap and widespread, and that was a great start at truly involving customers in decision making about R&D, product and service specifications, marketing programs, customer support and sustainability.
In healthcare, integrated systems, biopharma companies and startups routinely include patients in co-creation sessions for new products and services designed to improve both experience and outcomes. And the importance of meaningful patient involvement in drug development is now being recognized by the US FDA’s Patient-Focused Drug Development (PFDD) guidance that aims to include patients in crafting clinical trial protocols and ensure that endpoints meet the needs of patients in addition to those of researchers.
“A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.” — Henry Ford
Closeness at Scale, or Not
Over the past 20 years, social listening is another way Marketers have observed customers ‘in the wild,’ with a scale impossible to match using traditional research methods. With the addition of artificial intelligence processing this mass of unstructured data, today’s text analytics engines yield even greater insights into customer behaviors, and sometimes even answer the question, “Why?” However, as the leading tech companies, social platforms and online communities struggle to protect privacy and maintain customers’ trust, will this ocean of data start to dry up?
Ethnography is another method that uses unstructured data—albeit on a much smaller scale and with different types of data. Used originally by anthropologists to study faraway cultures, ethnography was co-opted by market researchers to better understand the subject from the point of view of the subject, often in her natural habitat. Companies like IDEO and frog pioneered the use of ethnography for commercial purposes, fueling the boom in user-centered design and design thinking we see today.
A decade ago I worked on a project with IDEO in San Francisco to better understand how patients made decisions about healthcare. I was part of the research team that visited patients in their homes and at work (with their permission) to observe, listen, photograph and ask questions about why they thought or acted in a certain way. It completely broke down the wall between ‘client’ and ‘research subject,’ and forever changed how I think about market research and customer input. Being ‘close to the customer’ in this case was not just a figure of speech.
Closeness Exposes Excuses
After working on that project with IDEO, it was difficult for me to endure traditional in-person focus groups from behind the glass, so as a client I stopped doing them. Focus groups always struck me as an inefficient, over-engineered and biased way to gather customer insights and feedback, yet the industry clung to them because they were easy, safe, and usually in cities with nice restaurants. The glass was real, but also symbolic of the hollow engagement between a client and his customers.
Now that I run an agency, we generally recommend direct customer engagement–such as advisory boards, in-person interviews or co-creation sessions–when practical for our clients. I believe it’s critical that a Marketer look customers in the eyes, hear their unfiltered assessment of the company’s products and services, and have an authentic dialogue about ways to improve. It can be uncomfortable, but the lessons for the Marketer are deeper, more personal, and longer lasting than skimming a report on the train home after a long day.
As for the entrepreneur in the snack shack above? He has no choice but to be close to his customers. What choice will you make?
Author: Joe Shields
Photo credit: Joe Shields