awesome, less awesome sign pointing in two different diirections
PHOTO: Jon Tyson

The old question goes: If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? But I'd like to ask: If you had a negative customer experience and no one’s around to hear about it, does it really matter? 

How can a brand truly understand what is impacting the opinion of their customer, if they’re not asking the right questions? 

Are You Asking the Right Questions of Your Customers?

Let's consider the expectations of a vacation resort customer. They expect their check-in to be seamless and that their rooms and views look every part as luxurious as they did online. But what if their experience falls flat as soon as they leave their room, with a 45-minute wait for their buffet breakfast each morning and no deck chairs available around the pool past 9am? 

Beyond sharing their frustrations with the concierge, the post-vacation guest survey is usually the only mechanism for feedback from guests to hotels. But if the survey is only asking for scaled answers to questions like “how was check-in?” “how was your room?” and “how was the hotel?” —  the resort may never truly know how or where to make changes to delight these customers in the future. And may never get a second opportunity to do so.

A recent Harvard Business Review Analytics Services (HBRAS) study sponsored by my company showed that while three-quarters (72%) of companies have a customer experience strategy in place, only a fifth (20%) claim the strategy is working well. At the heart of the issue? A chronic lack of customer understanding. It’s sobering to note that despite access to more customer data than at any point in history, most organizations still don’t truly know how their customers think and feel to know why they act. Taking the time to ask for the opinion of your customers is a good start but asking the right questions will make the insights more valuable to the organization — and ultimately more valuable to the customer’s experience. 

Related Article: Voice of the Customer Strategies: Effectively Turning Feedback Into Action

Are You Using VoC for Confirmation or to Get Real Insights?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of running research under the pretense of obtaining real-time voice of the customer (VoC) feedback which merely confirms that marketing initiatives are working and are showing improvement over time. However this is a KPI, not an insight, and in effect, it has ignored the customer’s voice and blocked their true perspective. The gold lies within those perspectives where the customer can share exactly what brands can do differently to delight them in the future and hope to retain and grow their business. The downfall is that this approach is often driven by the desire to provide the fastest response mechanism for the survey participant or as the fastest route to derive feedback for the brand owner. 

There are more customer surveys sent out than ever before, and more data on customers available than ever before. But, say this after me: Data for the sake of data is useless. So how can companies stop this vicious cycle, and start collection actionable data? A few things to consider may be: 

  1. Ask questions you might not want to know the answers to. Don’t assume the questions you’d ask customers are necessarily what they want to talk about. Using a large scale survey tool is great for quantitative data, but often nuanced insights and emotions can get lost. 
  2. Employ both big and small data methodologies. In addition to collecting and analyzing big data, mobile, clickstream, telemetry mobile diaries, online communities, and focus groups are all useful — and at times overlooked — customer information sources. These methodologies provide the small data that, when combined with big data, reveal actionable customer insights. 
  3. Ensure executive buy-in regarding the need to integrate small and big data. Leaders must be willing to invest in the funding and effort required to accomplish big and small data integration and believe in the strategic importance of a robust insights program. Focus on socializing your plans and articulating benefits to create buy-in from leadership across the board. 

My firm, FocusVision's annual "How Do You Research?" study, where CX owners share how they use research to understand their customers, found that although 70% are trying to understand the customer experience — a good sign — 62% are primarily measuring brand perception. The desire, or perhaps demand, for faster insights that only show where an organization is doing well is a growing trend: over the past year surveys have continued to be the dominant method of research used, and the overall number of methodologies employed has gone down, with in-person interviews and focus groups seeing the biggest decline. So it’s no surprise that such a small group of CX professionals is finding success from their CXM initiatives when the majority are skipping the key research methods that can help brand owners understand the hearts and minds of their customers. 

The impact of this research trend will be disastrous for many organizations on many levels, extending beyond a gap in understanding to directly impacting business predictability and revenue. Forrester Analytics Services recently revealed that how a customer feels has a greater impact on business outcomes than how they think —about 1.5 times the impact, on average — confirming the power that emotion plays in the decision-making process and thus proving that marketers must expand beyond a quick check-box survey to truly understand how their customers feel.

To borrow from that old ad campaign: Data for the sake of data? Useless. Data that gets us to actionable insights? Priceless.

Related Article: Why Data Alone Won't Produce Insights