Exploring Your Customers’ World: Using Ethnography

Scenic road along the seashore
I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be. – Douglas Adams

Have you ever remarked on little things that are not like home when you are travelling? Take England for instance. People there speak English (they defined the language of course) but the vocabulary in England can be very different from Canada and even more so from the US.  In the UK you wear a “jumper” when the weather is cold, you put your suitcase in the “boot” of the car, and you sip a “cuppa”. In Canada you wear a sweater, put your suitcase in the trunk, and sip a tea or coffee.

Global driving experiences also vary widely. In the UK cars drive on the left, swing through roundabouts on narrow streets, and you see more compact cars than SUVs. In India the rules of the road are more like suggestions; cars keep to the middle of the road and a horn is as important as a gas pedal in reaching your destination. If you were raised in Canada and dare to drive in India then you may need to get used to dodging cows, pedestrians, auto rickshaws, whole families on motorcycles, and trucks (lorries) heading straight towards you.

How does this relate to entrepreneurship? Good question!  Imagine your business as its own small country that you can travel to and explore. Not in the geographic sense, but culturally. In order to really understand your customers, you need to examine their habits much like a traveller in a new land, or researcher in anthropology. You can mount an expedition into the wilds of your customers’ offices and look for clues about their corporate culture.  The more you can understand about the environment that your customers live in and what is important to them, the better your product or service can meet their needs.

Think for instance if your business produces software, you can ask customers what they think about your product in survey questions, you can bring them to your office to try the software, or you can visit them to study how they use the software in their daily work. Each approach can provide useful information about your product, but observing your product used in the context of your customers’ work can provide insights you would never learn otherwise. One memorable time I visited people’s homes to watch them set up a high-end remote control to use with their home theatre systems. The remote came with a very realistic sticker showing the remote’s display system stuck over the actual display. It was supposed to be removed before starting the setup procedure but it was so realistic that most people only realized it was a sticker after becoming frustrated that the display wasn’t changing! This problem was easily fixed but hadn’t been reported before since most customers were too embarrassed to admit that a simple sticker had fooled them! This situation always reminds me how onsite research can reveal unique aspects of the customer experience.

Now that I’ve given you an example, let’s see how your can set up your own onsite customer visits:

1. Determine who and what to focus on

Plan to visit a variety of your customers. Choose customers from a range of industries, geographical locations, company sizes, and other attributes. These variations will help you to understand general themes across your market versus individual customer concerns. Refer to your customer personas to help prioritize which customers to visit.

Ask yourself “what are the main questions we want answered?” and then write them down. For example, “how easy is it to set up my product?”, “What types of reports do people use most often and why?”, “Who are the main users of the product?”. Be curious about how your product can help to make your customers’ lives easier and areas where it doesn’t deliver on this promise. Most of all, be open to unexpected findings.

2. Plan the visits 

Next, find out who has an existing relationship with the selected customers. This relationship will help to get your team in the door. Your visit can also strengthen the existing relationship with your customers. Your attention to their needs shows the customers that they are important to your company. That benefit can also help convince others in your organization to provide access to the customers.

When you reach out to them, ask your customers who would be the best staff members from their organization to answer your questions. Make sure they understand that you would like to see their people actually using the product to do their work.

Remember that you also need to respect the customers’ time. Figure out how long you will need to discuss the main questions, agree to a timeframe with the customer, and then stick to this schedule when you come to their workplace.

3. Visit the customers  

When you arrive at the customer site, make your customers as comfortable as possible. Engage them in friendly conversation about topics you have in common to set them at ease. Meet with your customers in their normal work setting and ask them open-ended questions as they demonstrate their work. Avoid leading questions. To encourage them to provide more detail, without leading them, use prompts such as: “Tell me more …” or “How do you know…” or “Why do you say that?”.

Finally, focus them on demonstrating specific steps using the product rather than talking in generalities. Take notes and record the conversation if at all possible. Remember to be observant about the physical environment as well. Sticky notes, tools, and reference papers around the workstation may all suggest ways to improve your product.

When you’re done, remember to thank the customer and their staff for their time.  You can follow up later to let them know about any resulting product improvements, but don’t promise any specifics at this point. Just emphasize that their insights have been valuable.

4. Communicate the results 

Once the visits are done and you’re back in your office, review your notes and pull together general impressions. Tie the findings back to the main questions that you wanted to answer. Look for themes in the findings and combine all the supporting evidence for each of the themes across the customer visits. Most importantly, respect what the customers said, rather than trying to make the conclusions fit your expectations. Now prepare a presentation of your findings. Involve as many people as possible from your organization so that the customer visits will have a bigger impact on improving your product.

5. Make a difference! 

The best customer research provokes action. Don’t simply file your observations away. Act on them to make your product better. Add features that will help solve customer problems. Modify or remove features that don’t. Thank your customers for their time by turning your observations of their work into an improved product.

Your customers are the experts in their own work. Your job is to learn from them and turn that understanding into a great product. Just like a traveller in a foreign land, observe your customers’ world with an open mind.  Be prepared to return from your travels with new inspiration. And tell me how visits to your customers have changed the way that you think about your product!

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