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?

Evaluating feedback

We all know the score: you attend a conference, business event, or training workshop, and at the end of the day you get a little form asking you to evaluate your experience. You can rate the speakers, venue, lunch and parking on a scale from one-to-five, and tick to say whether you would recommend the event to a friend or colleague.

But what about the other part of the evaluation: the open comments box? What was your favourite part of the day? What could we improve for next time? Any other comments? Hopefully someone is going to spend time typing up all these comments, and see if there are some common themes or good suggestions they can use to improve the event next year. Even if you are using a nifty on-line survey system like SurveyMonkey, does someone read and act on the suggestions you spent all that time writing?

And what about feedback on a product, or on service in a hotel or restaurant? Does something actually happen to all those comments, or as one conference attendee once suggested to me, do they all end up on the floor?

In fact, this is a common problem in research. Even when written up, reports often just stay on the shelf, and don't have influence on practice or procedure. If you want decision makers to pay attention to participant feedback and evaluations, then you need to present them in a clear and engaging way.

 

For the numerical or discrete part of surveys, this is not usually too hard. You can put these values in Excel, (or SPSS if you are statistically minded) and explore the data in pivot tables and bar graphs. Then you can see that the happiest attendees were the ones who ranked lunch as excellent, or that 76% of people would recommend the day to others.

Simple statistics and visualisations like this are a standard part of our language: we hear and see them in the news, at board meetings, even in football league tables. They communicate clearly and quickly.

But what about those written comments? In Excel you can't really see all the comments made by people who ranked the conference poorly, or see if the same suggestions are being made about workshop themes for next year.

That's what Quirkos aims to do: become the 'Excel of text'. It's software that everyone can use to explore, summarise and present text data in an intuitive way.

If you put all of your conference evaluations or customer feedback in Quirkos, you can quickly see all the comments made by people who didn't like your product. Or everything that women from the ages of 24-35 said about your service compared with men from 45-64. By combining the numerical, discrete and text data, you have the power to explore the relationships between themes and the differences between respondees. Then you can share these findings as graphs, bubble maps or just the quotes themselves: quick and easy to understand.

This unlocks the power of comments from all your customers, because Quirkos allows you to see why they liked a particular product. And it gives you the chance to be a better listener: if your consumers have an idea for improving your product, you can make it pop out as clear as day.

Hopefully it also breaks a vicious circle: people don't bother leaving comments as they assume they are aren't being read, and thus organisers stop asking for comments, because those sections are ignored or give generic responses.

 

So hopefully next time you fill out a customer feedback form or event evaluation, your comments will lead to direct improvements, rather than just being lost in translation.