Finding Out What Really Matters to the Customer

Several years back, I worked with a financial services client dealing with a sticky customer service issue. When this organization spoke with customers about it, they expressed one thing as their primary concern. However, upon analyzing actual buying behavior it was clear that customers were making decisions and buying services based on a totally different factor.  After deciding to address the issue with the purpose 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 the organization figured out what really matters to the customer, 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. However you gather customer feedback –  through surveys, market research, 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 asking about my satisfaction with my experience and whether I would recommend them to others. Generally, my answer is no – I wasn’t always happy, and 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?

That level of survey doesn’t provide understanding of what drives my buying behavior. It’s critical to dig deeper and understand what causes a customer to buy or not, because all other organization design choices depend on understanding what really matters to the customer. The organization design process in our book, Mastering the Cube: Overcoming Stumbling Blocks and Building an Organization that Works, goes from strategy to capabilities to choices. For an organization to achieve success, these must all 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, such as the manufacturing plant. While it often refers to visiting a physical location, you can also go to gemba with the customer.

Digging Deeper Than “Are You Satisfied?”

I was working with a company to redesign their very unpredictable supply chain processes. They would deliver at odd times, generating negative customer feedback. They were also seeing inventory increase. Part of our supply chain discovery process was to walk into the warehouse and follow a customer order from beginning to end. Then we talked to the customer to understand their needs, the information they had or hadn’t been provided, and expectations.  Interestingly, customers originally stated they needed on-time delivery. However, they were willing to accept a delayed delivery or partial shipment when the reason was explained to them and they were kept informed throughout the process.

Clear communication was more important than on-time delivery.  But you had to to dig deeper than “are you satisfied with what this company is doing?” to understand that.

Reality vs. Assumptions

For another client, I visited roughly fifty car dealers over the course of several weeks in Canada. I sat down with the business manager in each dealership and asked questions about their business.  It gave insight into what they did and how they did it beyond anything we ever expected.  Without going to gemba with the customer, or going to the customers’ gemba, we were only making assumptions.

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