Finding Out What Really Matters to the Customer

Several years back, I did some strategic business planning work with a financial services client who was dealing with a sticky customer service issue. When this organization spoke with their customers about it, they expressed one thing as their primary concern. However, upon analyzing their actual buying behavior it became clear that the customers were making decisions and buying services based on a totally different factor. After deciding to address the issue from the point of view of improving buying behavior, the organization made a few changes which, on the face of it, seemed to make the situation worse. However, the actual profitability and sales of the organization improved.  It was because they figured out what the customer really wanted, and it wasn’t what they were saying.  It was something different.

Often, what actually drives customers’ buying behavior may be unrelated to what they say they want. Whether you get customer feedback through surveys, market research, social media, a conversation through the call center, or face to face, the things customers say and believe aren’t always what forces their actions or decision.

Are You Asking The Right Questions?

I frequently get surveys from organizations that ask about my level of satisfaction with my experience with them, and whether I would recommend them to others. Generally, my answer is no, I wasn’t always happy, and no, I’m not going to recommend you to anyone else.  So what are they to conclude from that? That I don’t like them? Or that I don’t care?

I don’t think a survey at that level will let them really understand what drives my buying behavior. I believe it is critical to dig deeper and understand what it is that causes a customer to buy or not buy, because all other organization design choices are dependent on understanding what the customer really wants. If you look at the organization design process in our book, Mastering the Cube: Overcoming Stumbling Blocks and Building an Organization that Works, it goes from strategy to capabilities to choices. For an organization to achieve success, all of these have to be connected to what really matters to the customer.

Going to Gemba with the Customer

How do you find out what the customer really wants? We’ve found two approaches that work:

  • Watching customers perform their work
  • Having customers directly rank the things that drive their choices

A lot of folks in the Lean Six Sigma world talk about the notion of “go to gemba.” Gemba is a Japanese term that means “the real place,” or “the source.” To go to gemba means to go where the action is happening, such as visiting the manufacturing plant to see what’s going on. While it often refers to visiting a physical location, I would argue that you can also go to gemba with the customer.

At one point, I was working with a company to redesign their supply chain processes, which were really unpredictable. This company would deliver at odd times, which was generating negative customer feedback. They were also seeing their inventory increase. A part of what we did to figure out what was going on with their supply chain was to actually walk into the warehouse and follow a customer order through the process, where the order went, and how the order was handled. Then, we talked to the customer to try to get an understanding of what they needed to have happen, what information they had provided or not provided, and what they expected to have happen. The interesting thing is that when we spoke with the customers they originally said “I want it delivered on time,” but when we explained why a delivery might be delayed or why they might only get a partial shipment they were typically willing to accept that as long as they were kept informed of what was happening. As it turned out, clear communication was more important to them than on-time delivery, but you had to talk to them to understand that. You had to dig a little deeper than “are you satisfied with what this company is doing?”

Another example: on behalf of another client, I visited about fifty car dealers in Canada over the course of several weeks. I sat down in each dealership with the business manager and asked them questions about their business.  It gave us insights into what they did and how they did it beyond anything we could have ever expected, because without going to gemba with the customer, or going to the customers’ gemba, we were only making assumptions.

What has been your experience with customer feedback vs. actual buying behavior? What strategic business planning approaches are you using to ensure that you are meeting your customers’ actual needs – not just what you think they need or even what they tell you they want?