A Great Customer Experience Depends On Customer Understanding

My colleague Andrew McInnes recently wrote a post about the tunnel vision that results when companies rely solely on analytics for understanding customers. By neglecting qualitative research methods like ethnography and related tools like personas and customer journey maps, firms run the risk of thinking they know what customers want and need but in reality not having a clue. And that’s the root cause of some of the worst customer experience problems — issues that can drag down a business.

Take the case of Kevin Peters, Office Depot’s president, North America. Kevin recently spoke at our Customer Experience Forum where he described the biggest puzzle that confronted him when he got his job. Even as sales declined, store mystery-shopping scores compiled by a third-party research firm were going through the roof. How could this be? How could customers be having a great in-store experience but not actually buying?  

As it turned out, the mystery shoppers had been asking the wrong questions. They were accurately reporting that the floors and bathrooms of Office Depot stores were clean and that the shelves were stocked with merchandise. But as Peters put it: “Who cares?” When he personally visited 70 stores incognito, walked the aisles, and talked to customers, he discovered his real problems. For example, the combination of very large stores, weak signage, and employees who weren’t all that helpful made it hard to find products. That resulted in customers who walked in determined to buy and walked out without a purchase.

Could company execs have uncovered these problems with analytics alone? Maybe. But the fact is they didn’t — and I’m not sure who could have.

There are ways to systematically avoid Kevin’s dilemma. And they don’t require your president or CEO to go on a world research tour to study customers in person (although if they do, good for them, and please tell me about it!).

Forrester recently completed our customer experience maturity framework, which will appear in an upcoming report. In it, we identify the practices that create a consistent shared understanding of who customers are and what they want and need. Here are a few:

  • Conduct observational research studies in customers’ natural environment. This type of research includes techniques like contextual inquiry and shadowing that are best led by experts but can and should involve key company stakeholders.
  • Map customer’s interactions with the organization. The most common way to do this is by creating customer journey maps. But even writing down a list of the steps that customers take will help identify critical transitions and dependencies.
  • Document customer understanding in a way that’s easy for employees to understand and use. Our favorite technique for doing this is personas. But the only critical requirement is the need to capture actionable insight in a format that normal people can relate to. This could be a poster or even a room that recreates the customers’ natural environment along with the day-to-day items that offer a glimpse into how they think and make decisions.

If your organization adopts these practices, it can expect to more easily identify problems with today’s customer interactions, build new experiences that resonate with customers, and maximize the business value of your customer experience investments.

And at the very least you will avoid tunnel vision.

 As always, I look forward to your comments.


Data Alone Can Impair Your Vision

Great points, Harley.

Making major business decisions from a single information perspective - data - is akin to backing up an Office Depot delivery truck with one eye closed:

You can see the direction in which you're headed, but the lack of depth perception still may cause you to crash.

To your point, objective information (data) alone can be deceptive. Supplement it with subjective information that can best be gained through observations and interactions on the front lines.

The fact that a company the size of Office Depot can make such rookie mistakes as those you've described, proves that size of business is not a reliable indicator of its customer experience maturity. I think your framework should be required reading for every executive.

Thanks, Harley!

Jim Watson

Completely agree, Jim.

Completely agree, Jim. Sometimes we get lost in the data. I often hear "The data tells us" when perhaps "Our people tell us" might be more useful.

What to map?

I see how the concept of Journey Mapping could help as mentioned in this post. I think the key thing though is to not just understand and map the steps, but to take it to a lower level and map the actual touchpoints (interactions). From there, one should capture as much information about the various touchpoints to understand which ones are most relevant when it comes to driving customer behavior. Then, you'll have a much better picture of the "value" of each touchpoint. Once you have a solid appreciations for the touchpoints that can be directly linked to customer behavior (and thus the most valuable), you now have a game plan for how to prioritize and resolve the actions needed to solve the problem of lost customers and missed sales opportunities.