Unconventional Listening Techniques

Some firms are beginning to experiment with unconventional listening techniques. And the results, thus far, have been impressive. For example:

Intuit Corporation, makers of Quicken and Quickbooks software, devised “follow-them-home research” to gauge how easily customers install and learn to use new versions of their products, and to identify problems.

Apple, Motorola, Intel and other companies are adding anthropologists to their organizations. These experts apply their ethnographic training to the process of interviewing, observing and videotaping people in their natural settings, doing the laundry, say, or cooking a quick meal after a busy day at the office. Example: Maytag used lots of such ethnographic study to design its breakthrough Neptune front-loading washer.

Daimler-Chrysler used “archetype research,” to test consumer receptivity to early prototypes of its PT Cruiser. Medical anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille, who formerly worked with autistic children, assisted Cruiser’s design team in developing new ways to probe consumer reactions to the new vehicle. In place of the focus group, participants at various events in the US and Europe were given pens and paper and were asked to write stories triggered by the prototype. In the second hour, participants were asked to use scissors and a pile of magazines to cut out words and pictures that helped them describe their feelings about car. Finally, they were asked to lie on the floor, amidst dimmed lights and soothing music and were invited to let their minds drift back to childhood and recall memories invoked by the prototype. After each session, the team pored over the stories with highlighted markers, sleuthing for the emotion sparked by the vehicle, or what Rapaille calls “the reptilian hot buttons.”

The insights from this highly unusual approach were instrumental in significant design changes, when participants indicated that early prototypes felt insubstantial and unsafe. The prototype’s large rear window, attendees revealed, allowed “prying outsiders” to see in. Result: designers made significant changes in the PT Cruiser and when launched it became an immediate breakthrough for Chrysler.

Customer Case Research

One of the new-style listening techniques that I’m most excited about goes by the name of customer case research. Developed by Gerald Berstell and DePaul University professor Denise Nitterhouse, CCR is a form of exploratory research that can discover critical purchase drivers that are far afield of current thinking. It uses interviews and observation to trace the full stories of how actual customers make choices in a problem area of their lives. At its heart: getting customers to tell the story behind the purchase they made. Instead of a rambling focus group on banking, what was the story behind your deciding to change your checking account on Thursday, May 1st? By encouraging customers to use their own words to tell you the whole story behind their purchases, you’ll find they are bountiful of ideas whenever their stories:

  • Begin with events that surprise you
  • Involve people you never considered
  • Entail constraints or decision criteria you never anticipated
  • Show your products being used in ways you never intended
  • Encounter turbulence at points you never expected

When working for a client, Berstell tries to gather stories around an actual purchase, rather than interview a consumer about their general attitudes and preferences. “Often I’m in a store and witness the act of purchasing; other times I have order or warranty information that allows me to contact a customer and ask them for the story behind the purchase. As soon as most customers start relating their purchase stories, they immediately begin introducing events and experiences no survey writer or focus group moderator ever thought to ask about. Previously “unarticulated needs” are finally voiced.

Ask Customers These Questions

If you want to get outside the box thinking from your customers, get them to tell you their purchase stories. Ask them:

  1. What started you on the road to making this purchase? A scuba business found many of its customers’ stories starting withe a couple got engaged and started thinking about tropical paradise honeymoon activities – leading to innovation in positioning, pricing, publicizing, and packaging its products and services.
  2. Why did you make this purchase at this particular time? Many people taking an architectural river cruise in Chicago had thought about doing this for years, but didn’t actually do it until out-of-town houseguests created a pressing need to find new activities. The cruise company repositioned its advertising around this previously “unarticulated need,” and also developed new products to help fill it.
  3. What was the hardest part of this process? Was there any point where you got stuck? The developer of an innovative new training technology thought that limited course selection was the main impediments to its introduction, but was shocked to find that the purchase process most often snagged by totally unexpected purchasing procedures within client organizations. Market penetration multiplied almost 100-fold within three months after innovative pricing circumvented the problem.
  4. When and how did you decide the price for this product was acceptable? A maker of high-end gourmet microwavable dinners for at-home use was surprised that purchase stories generally showed the product being used for lunch at the office. When people said how much they were paying for lunch at work, it became clear that there’s a much higher price umbrella for office lunch products than for at-home dinner products, and a huge unmet need for more of them.
  5. If you’ve purchased this product before, how does the story of your last purchase differ from this one? One tire maker discovered 40 new ways to segment the tire market – and find major unmet needs for this century-old product – by comparing different tire purchase stories told by the same people.

To state the obvious, breakthrough innovations can come from customers, but only if we know how to listen. We’ve gotten so quantitative in our interactions with consumers that we’ve become inured to what common, garden-variety citizens can tell us about their problems – that represent new revenue sources and competitive advantages when we move first to turn them into opportunities.

Breakthrough ideas can be inspired and seeded by customers when customers are able to tell, in their own words, the stories of the events that define their needs, and their experiences filling those needs.