The 3 best ways to learn from your customers (and non-customers)

  • Business Model Innovation
  • Design Thinking
  • Value Proposition Design

We hear it every day: “be empathetic”, “listen to your customers”, “it’s the voice of the customer that counts”, “let the customer be our guide”, and, our personal favorite, “get out of the building!” These are all great rallying cries. However, by themselves, these statements leave out crucial details about why, when and how one might go about interacting with customers (or potential customers). After all, every customer interaction is different and may produce different results. In this article, we’ll break down the four most common ways to interact with your customers. Please note: one of these is not like the others (i.e. it’s rarely the best way…or even a good way to interact with customers).

Having been a part of corporate culture for a long time, one of the first things we typically hear about when we discuss customer interactions are focus groups. If you don’t know what a focus group is, here’s how it’s defined by the Oxford Dictionary: “A group of people assembled to participate in a discussion about a product before it is launched, or to provide feedback on a political campaign, television series, etc.” In essence, a focus group is a guided discussion, usually led by a third party company, in which feedback will be given about something. Sounds good so far, right? Well, maybe. While focus groups can be good for tuning marketing messages and perhaps even product titles and imagery, they’re really only useful when you have specific feedback that you want to hear. In this case, you’re probably not even interested in any real a-ha moments as these might tank your current plans.

Why is this the case? It’s all in the first part of the standard definition, “A group of people assembled to participate in a discussion.” In other words, when you assemble people specifically outside of their natural, working habitat and feed them a discussion designed to elicit specific feedback, you’re only likely to get part of the story. In fact, you’ll probably get a ton of false positives. As the famous cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once said, “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.” Without relevant environmental context, your focus group customers are going to lie to you. Sorry, that’s the truth!

Oh…and one more thing about learning from customers: data alone will almost never provide the human insights you’re looking for. People often tell us, “we’ve got data from the research…we’re good to go.” Sure, the data will give you trends if you know where to look. But, the human interactions and insights will be missing leaving you to forever design add-on features and widgets rather than something people really want and need.

What are the best ways to learn from your customers, then?

Firstly, before we commence with the list, it must be said that learning directly from your customers does not have to be a lengthy and/or academic process. In fact, end users are everywhere…even in places you think they’re least likely to be. So, let’s get on with it.

Often overlooked, but perhaps the easiest and most powerful of all customer interaction techniques is a technique we call “observation”, or simply the eyes-wide-open technique. In this case, you deliberately go to where your customers are and watch them, taking notes, photos, video, etc. Like a safari, this technique is all about observing your customers in their natural, working habitats, while trying your best to fade into the background.

Though this sounds easy, observation actually takes a lot of self-control and training. Most people will go into an observation session with preconceived notions about what they’re going to see. However, if you’re there to learn something new (hopefully you are!), you’ll need to go in with an open, inquisitive mind.

You might prepare yourself by writing down the assumptions you have or what you feel/think is reality. Allow yourself to validate those. It’s also a great way not to fall into your own mental booby-traps. As mentioned this requires a little training as we always want to be right! It’s human nature, right?

Now that you have your assumptions clearly stated, it’s time to move on to observation. But wait, before you do you must also understand that interacting with your customer is not about proving yourself right or worse: proving them wrong. It is about learning things you didn’t know before. Those findings can be big things, (e.g. they are actually not your customer) or smaller things (e.g. they actually don’t read your manual). The key is to not confuse your assumptions for reality.

So, what if you have something that you really want to ask? That brings us to the second technique: asking and observing. Like the previous technique, it’s ALWAYS best to meet your customers where they are. And, in this case you’re not just going to watch, you’ll also be armed with some questions you’d really like to ask, like, “why are you here?”, “where are you going?”, “why do you do it that way?”, etc. As simple as this sounds, there are a couple of keys successfully interacting with customers in this way. First, come armed with a VERY short list (maybe 5 to 7) pre-written questions; be ready to revise them based on your conversations. Second, don’t be pushy. Rather, ask permission to have a short conversation. Third, DO NOT pitch. You’re here to learn from your customers not sell them something. Just have a conversation with them. Finally, it’s always best to bring a buddy with you that can record interesting details while you talk (or vice versa).

And, of course, if you’re already asking customers what they want/need/do etc., you might as well record what they say so you can share it with your colleagues. Again, it can’t be said enough how easy yet powerful this actually is. Here’s a video we shot using an iPhone while doing seven interviews on a train…all over the course of 1.5 hours. I think the result stands for itself.

The final technique, we’ll call scoped interactions, is a bit more scientific in nature, and is SUPER useful when you’re goal is to test a prototype with a customer and/or validate/invalidate an idea. Like “asking and observing”, this technique uses both observation and questioning. However, in this case, you probably have very specific questions you need to ask and/or things you need to test with customers within a particular time period.

For instance, let’s consider for a moment that in typical design thinking fashion you have a prototype that you need to validate (or invalidate) with some people. One way to do that would be to simply put your prototype in front of them and let them respond to it. In this case, you might merely observe their interactions and reactions. However, perhaps your prototype is linked to – or is – a business model. In this case, you probably have some specific questions that you’d like to ask in order to get to the heart of the thing you’re trying to do or solve for. This would be a scoped interaction.

Mind you, just like asking and observing, as you interact with people within a specific scope, you’ll almost certainly find new questions that you’ll want to ask. So, don’t think of scoped interactions as an immutable experiment. Just change the questions as needed until you get a solid set that makes up the bulk of your interviews.

It’s all about the customers…and non-customers

At the end of the day there are more ways to learn from your customers, and non-customers, than we have time for in this article. However, it’s not at all difficult to start. Truly, the best advice was summed up by a marketing genius at Nike more than a decade ago: “Just Do It”. To help you get started, here are five quick tips to help you learn more from your customers:

  1. Before you dive blindly into spreadsheets or focus groups, ask yourself what you want to achieve. Do you want to validate something, get new insights, or be right? There are different ways to get to the bottom of these goals.
  2. Right down the things (you think) you know about your customers and non-customers. These are assumptions that you want to test.
  3. You don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes a simple conversation with people in the street will gain you a ton of insights and maybe even prevent you from investing a lot of money into an idea that should have been killed a long time ago.
  4. When you talk or observe people, don’t try to prove yourself right. It’s always better to act like a scientist and try to prove yourself wrong…but be happy when you’re right!
  5. Ask open-ended questions. And certainly, try to dive deeper into what you hear (“Why?”, “Tell me more”, “What happened when you did that?”)

What are some of your favorite “customer learning” techniques?

This story was a written (and collaborated on) by Maarten van LieshoutJustin Lokitz, from Business Models Inc., San Francisco.


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