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Gathering customer level insights

Some critical paradigm shifts needed in the crisis

Under ordinary circumstances, organizations are best guided by feedback from customers and their behaviour – but these are not ordinary circumstances. It is probable that the customer will not know best, given the full implications of a COVID-19 world are yet to unfold. In addition, the overall chaos in the underserved segments that our companies operate in is compounded by noise, fear, and myths. In the past, we have seen that the implications of unusual environmental factors are often acknowledged in hindsight and with a lag by our customer segments (both individuals and SMEs) – by such time it is often too late for companies to intervene or respond in a meaningful way. 

In the current scenario, the chaos is further amplified for a lot of reasons: 

  • There is widespread, unprecedented fear. Despite several assurances of relief packages, the degree of confidence in the efforts coming to bear is limited.
  • For a segment that has reconciled itself to long term instability, there is now near term instability to cope with as well.
  • The lack of security in terms of ‘return to normal’ will lead to behaviour that cannot be easily anticipated. Will reverse migration patterns correct themselves? Will the same level of jobs be available in cities – and after how long? What does it take for a family with meagre resources to re-establish their base? Can rural homes absorb the double whammy of losing a source of urban income and having to support the returning migrant? And for how long?
  • Given that organizations with sophisticated financial planning teams are struggling to run scenario analyses, entrepreneurs of small businesses will be far from equipped to anticipate even medium-term implications.

How then can seeking such a customer’s input be useful? Should one stop listening to the customer? Not really, but four shifts are critical and need to happen now (easier said than done):

Shift from seeking inputs to having conversations 

Here we mean conversations that help the customer visualize implications, and that help our organizations understand behaviour in the context of such implications. It is important that the customer realizes that she is being approached for a conversation – not a follow up for payment, not for a checklist of questions to be answered and certainly not as a revenue opportunity. This could range from healthcare information to a better way for customers to organize their own lives or businesses – but the starting point will have to be something that adds immediate value to the customer’s life. As the conversation progresses, weave in your inputs on how you expect the scenario to unfold and the likely implications for the customer, and then lead into an active discussion around those scenarios. Such conversations will play a role in providing insights that can be implemented effectively and building greater repeat engagement from the customer. 

Shift from data-led to insight-led decision making 

In the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that conversations will provide consistent data that can be analyzed. In this environment, particularly as the customer is not necessarily in a position to know best, it makes sense to shift directly to insights. The best of experts would agree that analytics around data points during unusual circumstances can create noise, a retreat to predictable answers from customers and misleading conclusions. The instincts built over years, through time spent working closely with the customer segment and insights from conversations will help leaders to make more effective decisions. So it is time to lead with insights and then validate them, rather than just seek trends within data. The validation can be done with data, with other conversations in local ecosystems, and with anecdotes.

Shifting the pace of conversations

In normal times, one tends to have conversations and seek feedback from customers when opportunities present themselves. A fascinating insight can come from a particular customer, which can then be validated through conversations with other customers through data. But given that pace is important in the current context, to increase the odds of having insightful conversations, one has to make a significant shift in the number of customers one speaks with. In addition, one has to find a way to have repeat conversations with customers one has spoken to before. 

Shift to multi-level conversations within the hierarchy of your organization

Organizations that have deep customer engagement tend to be good at centralized feedback or bottom up feedback (field staff leading the way). Given the need for meaningful conversations with customers and the search for insights, it is critical that all levels of the organization engage with the customer. This will mean that not only the frontline, but all other teams will need to be trained to have strategic conversations with customers. 

In summary, businesses need to shift their bias in favour of direct conversations vs. management summary, informal modes vs formal tools, free wheeling conversations vs structured response seeking and fast evolving modifications to the conversation vs consistency. There are no rights and wrongs, and the risk of ‘false comfort’ basis data is high –  unravelling layers to get to the depth of insights on the ground remains the most important.