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To really feel your customers' pain, you have to stand right by their side

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I’m going to make a bet with you. At some point this summer the sun will properly come out (no, really), and the mercury will start to rise. When it does, sales of ice cream will start to rise. As it gets hotter, they’ll continue to rise… until, at about 25.3C, they will suddenly plateau, before falling steadily as the temperature continues its hypothetical march towards the traditional “London hotter than place X!” headlines.

Why am I so sure? Big data tells me so.

Now, as Zone’s head of CRM, you might expect me to tell you that – as big data can tell you everything. However, I’m happy to admit that it can’t tell me why ice cream sales plateau at 25.3C, because it doesn’t know. You actually have to speak to people to understand the real-world dilemma that prompts this behaviour (apparently, this is the temperature at which concerns over melting outweigh a craving for refreshment).

Big data is incredible: it can help us map out customer journeys in a granular way, particularly when thinking about online experiences. But often the problem the consumer is trying to solve occurs offline, leaving a disconnect between the pain point and the big data. To bridge that disconnect, you have to talk to the customer – and that’s when you might find an opportunity.

Take washing powder. Retail sales data tells me that washing powder is bought on specific days early in the week (possibly after a weekend of multiple washes), or simply once a month when consumers do their big non food-related shops.

OK, fine – but now personalise it. If you’re like me, you realise that you have run out while standing at the washing machine (the dilemma). Standard operating procedure in the Cuzziol household is to jot it down on the shopping list ready for the next Waitrose order… and thus contribute to that standard big data analytic.

But in that pain point, there was an opportunity to bypass the shopping list. An obvious e-commerce solution might come in the form of a simple one-step order interaction with my mobile. But I don’t keep my mobile in my pocket when I’m at home. What I need is an ever-present, dedicated digital solution present at the pain point – such as Amazon’s Dash buttons.

The identification of these dilemmas – and their solutions – happens when we get closer to the customer than big data might allow. Essentially a kind of ethnography, it’s about gaining insight just by being with consumers, in their own environment, as they perform tasks. Focus groups and surveys can ask these questions, but don’t happen where the real action takes place – and are unlikely to discover that I actually don’t have my smartphone with me next to the washing machine.

We can use all the web analytics data to describe the journey a consumer takes when trying to make a purchase on an e-commerce platform, but it’s only by sitting with them and recording their struggles with the credit card section of a checkout that we get a richer understanding of what’s going on.

That’s why we place such a premium on user research, observing them on their digital journey to observe where the speed bumps are, and working on ways to smooth them out… even to the extent of mapping people’s facial expressions to the movements of a mouse on a test screen. A grimace, for example, can be an incredibly valuable data point.

Yes, big data can get us closer to customers, but we only get really close to them when we are literally close to them… and can share the pain point.

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