Knowing your customers

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As consumers, it feels like we are bombarded more than ever with opportunities for providing feedback on products and services. While shopping on-line, or even when browsing BBC News we are asked to complete a short questionnaire; after dealing with a telephone bank there’s the option to complete a quick survey; and at airport security you can rate your experience by hitting a button with either a smiley face or a frowny face.

 

But despite being told that ‘your feedback really matters to us’, what happens to it? It’s often difficult to see any change from your feedback, and even when giving direct feedback, too often the changes suggested are not made. But more than this, it’s sometimes difficult to understand how we can expect people to understand our needs and problems with such brief and forced categorisation. If I rate a telephone sales agent from 1-10 on categories of helpfulness, friendliness, and professionalism, you are forced to somehow shoehorn your feedback on any other aspect of the experience into these areas. You don’t know if ‘length of wait’ will be a category, and you could care less how friendly they were, if they couldn’t fix your problem.

 

I wonder this when hearing stories in the news about the continuing sales decline at Tesco, a huge organisation that clearly spends millions on customer understanding. Because for all the hoop-la around loyalty schemes, ‘convenience’ stores, price-matching (only with certain competitors), are management at some level blind to the rise of budget supermarkets? Customers clearly aren’t, and it’s difficult to tell if big supermarkets either have their head in the sand, or they assume their customers are stupid.

 

I can’t pretend to know why the likes of Lidl and Aldi have become so popular, it could just be price, but perhaps a more pleasant streamlined shopping experience, without having to choose between value, regular and luxury versions of everything. A focus group could tell you: if you had a wide range of users, you could ask them questions; or better still, let people raise issues themselves without being pigeonholed. And this seems to be more and more difficult for the grocery shopping market, thanks to a huge demographic shift. Watch Robert Preston’s excellent series on consumer culture, and you can see that in the 60s, to know retail shoppers was to know housewives: if you could get their spending, you got it all. But today everyone shops, and with a lingering recession, job pressures and a mobile work market, we shop whenever we get a chance. A one stop grocery shop usually tries to attract housewives, househusbands, students, bachelors, hipsters and skinflints alike, either spreading themselves too thin, or becoming bewildering to all.

 

So perhaps the one-size-fits all model is not going to be the way of the future. On-line grocery sales have begun to slow at just 5.1% of the market, either there is going to be an innovation here, or the market already has found its niche. But it seems that many smaller grocery stores are on the rise, tailored to a specific target audience. Health food shops which in the 90s used to only sell vitamins and gluten-free flour now sell 'healthy' cornflakes and fresh organic produce – so you can get everything in one shop. Marks and Spencer’s ubiquitous stores now cater for a new ready-meal elite: grabbing dinner for one or two on the way back from the office. And Farmfoods and Iceland have the low end of the market – frozen food so busy families can buy a week’s worth of inexpensive, easily prepared budget meals.

 

So these big chains do well by knowing their audience. And it’s no different for smaller, independent businesses. Quirkos is proposing that even these small firms can afford to do their own direct market research, and with detail that will give a much better feel for their customers than just relying on crude statistics and smiley and frowny faces. That way, rather than relying on very traditional market research, business can take a more local and individual approach. Rather than focus groups behind one-way-mirrors, or questionnaires with low engagement rates, why not invite a group of customers to a wine evening, and record a discussion about new products? If recorded properly by diligent staff, collated and analysed, informal feedback to cashiers can start to build a picture of what products or experiences are missing.

 

Then Quirkos would step in, providing software that is easy to get started with, so a manager can pull together all these sources of feedback, read them, and put them into themes that s/he can use to make the changes customers are looking for. Market research is already a huge industry in the UK, but can’t we go further and democratise it? Small scale for small businesses, quick to learn, and priced for everyone?