Why is everyone talking about customer closeness?

Why is everyone talking about customer closeness?

It used to be the case that if you had leaner manufacturing, made higher quality products­­ or had superior distribution, you would have a significant advantage over your competitors, but in a world of next-day delivery, price comparison websites and next-level experiential merchandising, sound operational capabilities are simply the cost of doing business.

The playing field of true competitive advantage has shifted away from operational capabilities towards customer centricity – a deep understanding of the needs of your shoppers and the ability to leverage that need to generate profit.

Insights teams have been trying for years to furnish their businesses with this information and yet most of us who work in client-side insight know all too well just how hard it is to tear people away from the day job to immerse themselves more fully in the shopper perspective.

Even the best PowerPoint debriefs can only take us so far.  They can help to give context and to deliver solid evidence, but they are no substitute for personal experience, and when it’s personal, it’s memorable.

If stakeholders leave debriefs without an intimate understanding of the issue and a clear grasp of next steps, then the onus is on the insight team to find new ways to communicate to make the story more compelling.

We’ve all seen a situation where the most carefully crafted and robust debrief fails to ignite change whilst meanwhile, the CEO sees a tweet, or talks to a shopper during a store visit and suddenly the whole team is galvanised into action on the thinnest of evidence.

To drive change, you need to connect stakeholders with real, human stories – it’s something charities have known for decades.  We all know that there is poverty and injustice in the world, but we are most likely to put our hands in our pockets when we see first-hand the story of someone actually struggling.  The story draws us in and makes us feel compelled to act in a way that simply knowing the statistics doesn’t.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review cited that “Your company is 50% more likely to over perform if it incorporates direct employee-customer connection at multiple stages of the planning process” *

This is what a good customer closeness programme can achieve – it can help to bust unhelpful myths about your shoppers, illuminate new and pressing issues and create a burning platform from which to drive transformational change and revenue growth.

However, it’s not just a case of setting up some viewed focus groups or cottoning on to the latest fashionable methodology (otherwise you can all too quickly end up in CEO tweet territory).  Like anything worthwhile, it depends on careful planning, on being conducted in the right context and on using best practice to ensure it achieves its goals

Done well, customer closeness tells the real and human shopper stories that galvanise action.  That’s why everyone is talking about it…
* Building an Insights Engine, Harvard Business Review 2016

Customer Closeness – telling you what you already know

Customer Closeness – telling you what you already know

Most businesses would agree “we have lots of data, but not a lot of insight”. We hear this echoed back to us by frustrated and overworked insight teams – they run to keep up with the demands for customer inputs into various projects, but never have the opportunity to really infuse that understanding properly. As soon as one debrief is delivered, it’s on to the next project with all speed. The business will often make sufficient budget available to generate new research but will rarely make enough headcount or time and space available to ensure the work is done to fully inculcate the understanding.

It is almost always the case in our experience that the insight team has an intimate familiarity with shoppers – they know who shoppers are, what their needs are, and they understand the market conditions and forces acting on shopper behaviour, as well as the burning platforms within the business that demand action. Indeed, they should be familiar with these issues – they spend all day examining the proof points.

However, in most cases, that intimate understanding simply does not consistently translate into the rest of the business, and unless everyone in the business is familiar with, and acting on those issues, there is a clear-cut need for a customer closeness programme.

We firmly believe that the crux of a customer closeness programme is not generating new insight. It is distilling the vast amounts of information that the business already has into a few important key messages and deciding on the most impactful way to communicate them to stakeholders.

If you accept this central premise, then it becomes clear that customer closeness is not simply about watching a focus group or attending an accompanied shop. Whilst valuable research tools in their own right, they are an expensive way to embed understanding, and offer very little control that the right messages will be communicated.

A good customer closeness programme will start with the messages it seeks to communicate, and then identify the right methodologies to make it happen. The kind of activities offered, the way shoppers are recruited to participate and the way it’s launched into the business all need to be thought about differently to standard research projects in order to achieve maximum impact.

Imagine how much more aligned your business would be if you could instil the same three crucial pieces of shopper understanding consistently in every single person across the business. If everyone fully understood what was driving your most important shopper behaviours and how the business needed to respond to drive sales.
Sometimes the best investment isn’t in new insight – sometimes it’s in making sure that everyone aligns to the same shopper goals. That is what a well-executed customer closeness programme can do for you, and it can be absolutely transformative.

Customer Closeness – Putting the ‘What’ before the ‘How’

Customer Closeness – Putting the ‘What’ before the ‘How’

So, you’ve decided that you need to get your business closer to its shoppers and you’re thinking about how to accomplish that.

When you try to build customer closeness in your business, you’ll find no shortage of creativity out there in agency land, and that’s a great and necessary thing – that is the kind of creativity that, properly deployed will really help to make your activities memorable.
In order to be truly effective however, the customer closeness programme has to start with the ‘what’, before jumping straight to the ‘how’. As with any project, in order to be successful, it is crucial to think up front about what you want to achieve and set some concrete goals.

As we mentioned in our previous article, we firmly believe that customer closeness should be about illuminating what you already know in new ways, not telling you something totally new. This being the case, what are the messages you need to land and what will your stakeholder reaction be? What will the likely challenges be and what will you do to overcome them? Working out the answers to these questions up front will enable you to choose the best methodologies to accomplish this in the most efficient and effective way.

You should also think about how each activity fits with the next – a scattergun approach of many different activities risks diverting attention away from the key business issues and sending confusing messages to stakeholders.
We have found that having a framework in which customer closeness activities can take place is the most effective way to manage this.

We worked with one retailer who had identified 8 distinct business issues that would impact its financial performance over the coming year. The customer closeness programme that we built used a variety of different activities to illuminate each one of those business issues in turn, using the robust research that had already been carried out as a launching platform. This meant that stakeholders had a rich and textured understanding of the issue, as well as all of the data at their fingertips when they made decisions to address the issues.

Do you want to illuminate a particular business issue? Do you want to provide a seasonal lens? Do you want to bust some shopper myths? Follow the shopper journey? There are any number of potential ‘hooks’ to hang the programme on and aiming at the right one will yield powerful results.

Working with a framework allows you to maintain an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders, as well as co-ordinate the closeness activities with your wider research programme, ensuring that one feeds seamlessly into the other.

Creativity is critical but beware of launching an activity over the wall in the hope that it will accomplish something. Face to face contact with shoppers will always be useful, but it won’t achieve maximum impact unless you set some goals up front, and co-ordinate it properly with the rest of your research programme.

Customer Closeness – fancy methodologies need not apply

Customer Closeness – fancy methodologies need not apply

Many agencies have come up with fantastically creative ideas on how to get their clients closer to customers over the years. We’ve had shop-alongs, safaris, unboxings, sleepovers, board sessions, co-creation workshops, live focus groups and probably tandem parachute jumps as well. These sessions were no doubt entertaining and memorable, but how much did they actually inspire change?

Customer closeness comes in many forms and actual face-time with shoppers is only a part of it. We worked with a retailer who wanted to better understand the needs of the ageing population. We conducted extensive qualitative and quantitative research, as well as looked at purchasing habits of this age-group through the use of panel data. Our conclusions were robust and (we thought), simple. Stakeholders had already had face-time with shoppers. Some of them attended the research, and we produced film content for those that couldn’t attend to underline the main points.

However, despite the fact that stakeholders seemed to understand the messages, clear actions and next steps seemed oddly hard to tease out.
We needed something to make the story more real, so for a follow-up workshop, we used age-simulation materials (glasses that simulate eye problems and gloves that simulate arthritis) and asked participants to wear them whilst they chose, purchased and ate their lunch. That single hour gave them a better understanding of the needs of their shoppers than all of the films and interviews and we were able to use the research to then quantify the scale of the problem and the opportunity.

In another example, we worked with a retailer who had some stereotypical views of its shoppers that were deeply entrenched in the business. Had those stakeholders seen a shopper face to face that disturbed those views, they would have been too easy to dismiss. In this case, we used robust purchasing data that challenged the stereotypes, but communicated as single bite-sized facts in a poster campaign.
The purpose of this wasn’t to change minds on the spot, but rather to open a conversation and create a buzz, getting everyone in head office talking about how the data showed a view of the shopper that ran counter to their deep-seated expectations.
When a more open mindset was established, we could then move in with more robust research to help develop the thinking and promote change

Creativity is crucial to a good and memorable customer closeness programme, but sometimes being open-minded in your approach can actually result in quicker, cheaper and simpler approaches that will be even more effective at landing a point than face-time with shoppers. The most successful programmes draw on a wide variety of tools to deliver impact.

By knowing what you want your programme to achieve up front, you’ll be in the best possible position to choose a range of methodologies that land your point with devastating effectiveness