Customer Relations – learn to look as well as listen

Customer Relations - learn to look as well as listen

This is a guest post from Jennifer Welford, Small Business Team – Accounts and Legal.

‘Ethnography’ is one of those obtuse marketing words, like ‘psychographic’ or ‘ideating,’ which marketing industry insiders often use to maintain an aura of deep intellect in their field so that business owners simply must hire them.

Put simply ethnography is the scientific description of people and their customs, habits, and mutual differences. By using ethnography all businesses can benefit from a better understanding of their clients true behaviours.

How do you do it?

Deadly secrecy surrounds the results of ethnography studies, usually because they are so effective that corporations do not want their rivals to know their findings. In essence, the term ‘ethnography’ means a form of consumer observation which records actual behaviour, rather than feedback from customer surveys, or indexing all the pages they have ‘liked’ on Facebook.

The reason this is important is that everyone knows the lifestyle we claim to have on social media can be a glossy, airbrushed version of reality. And, in feedback surveys, questions can often bias a respondent towards a certain answer, by offering a reward for completing the survey. Therefore, their subconscious desire to please the researcher can mean the participant’s responses are not totally genuine.

So, if you want customers honest and unguarded opinions you either have to mislead them as to the purpose of the survey – the placebo effect – or watch their actual real-life choices.

Observe them in their natural habitat

Ethnography studies involve a researcher actually accompanying the subject/customer home or to work, to observe them for several hours until that point that their behaviour becomes unconscious and is no longer affected by observation. Then, the disparity between what they say and how they act is apparent. For example, a group of surgeons in an operating theatre were asked if they had enough light. While they said they did have enough light, they were observed constantly shifting their heads to get a better view of the patient. Keith Goffin of Cranfield School of Management, who performed the study, said the company which commissioned the research took this finding and created a throw-away light stick that could help surgeons see better in their operating theatres.

However, those who cannot afford to contract psychological researchers to trail their target demographic can still learn from this technique. It could simply mean that when designing surveys and feedback forms, businesses need to dig a little deeper and ask why the respondent has chosen a certain option, forcing the customer to think for themselves and articulate why they have chosen the option.

Reverse psychology

Alternatively, you could take the psychometric testing approach and deliberately throw challenging questions at them, like “Do you strongly dislike Cheesestrings?” or “Is Net-a-Porter too expensive for the likes of you?”. This approach can be a good way to provoke a strong reaction, or at least bring underlying feelings to the surface.

Challenging people to articulate their view of a brand or product can do more good than suffocating them with clap-happy platitudes about how great the brand is.

A simple application

Consider the supermarket brands Tesco and Morrison that recently changed their policy on keeping sweets by the checkout till. Keeping sweets and other items next to the tills is a is classic retail strategy that aims to boost confectionery sales through impulse buying.

However, by observing customers they found that customers felt that the supermarket giants were exploiting their weakness for confectionery for a fast buck. Removing the sweets from next to their tills, the supermarkets presented themselves as helping consumers make healthier lifestyle choices and, as such, the companies earned better relations and improved brand loyalty.

So, if businesses want to better persuade their customers that they have their interests at heart, start by looking at what they really need, rather than what you think they need.



Jennifer Welford, Small Business Team – Accounts and LegalThis is a guest post from Jennifer Welford, Small Business Team – Accounts and Legal.

Accounts and Legal help small businesses plan for growth and they do this by taking away as much of the distracting bookkeeping, payroll and admin as possible as well as applying their wealth of business experience into advice. Our tax services, designed to optimise both company and personal side of the tax equation, help small businesses keep their tax returns bill to a minimum as well as advise on the best tax planning solutions for the future.

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6 comments On Customer Relations – learn to look as well as listen

  • Very interesting, I particularly like the story about the light sticks.

    I suppose we are brought up to please… “Do I look fat in this dress?”… and so are not great at telling the truth.

    • I often wonder why we’re not great at telling the truth. Is it because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, don’t like the potential conflict or a bit of both.

      I wonder how many surgeons have accidentally left a used light stick inside a patient? 😉 And, I wonder if you give them a shake would they glow bright yellow 🙂

      • It’s a shame that we’re programmed to be dishonest when we think it’s more polite; sometimes it’s better to be cruel to be kind.

        For example, “Do I look fat in this dress?”. While it might be uncomfortable to say yes you would actually be doing that lady a favour as she will change into something more flattering. If the surgeons had spoken up and said yes, surely it would have been safer.

  • I’m a big fan of understanding the customer and his wants/needs/tasks to be done, rather than assuming we know best.

    Annette 🙂

    • Me too, Annette. However, I often wonder if understanding the customer is a tick box exercise for many firms and they are just going through the motions. Maybe it’s back to James’ comment that often we’re not very good at telling the truth about ourselves or others.


  • I agree Adrian. The only way to truly understand consumers is to observe them in their natural environment as monitoring while they are conscious of it or asking specific questions can have an adverse effect.

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