After P&G had spent millions of dollars developing Febreze, it sold poorly.
When company researchers visited the homes of their target customers, they found a few surprising things. First, many people they visited didn’t notice any odors in their house that others did, and therefore didn’t see a need for Febreze. Second, they found that customers who were using Febreze would use it at the end of cleaning, almost as a final touch or a “mini-celebration.”
To align their business strategy with that they found, P&G increased the perfume content in Febreeze and positioned the product as a pleasant treat and a house cleaner’s final touch, not a reminder that your home stinks.
Sales doubled within two months and reached $230 million a year later.
In a similar case, in 2001 Lego saw plummeting sales and were facing competition from video and computer gaming. To reboot the company, a new CEO got the company out of the office and in front of customers to find out how to improve upon the product. What they found was that when kids play with Lego’s, they often use their imaginations to create backstories for the characters and the sets they’re building. Based on the customer observation, Lego introduced a line of sets that came with a backstory.
They added role-play sets where characters rescue endangered animals in the jungle and set off on summer camping trips with friends. They changed their advertisements to show kids acting out the Lego character backstories. And for adults, they created Lego Architecture sets, such as the Sears Tower, which retail at “grown-up prices.”
These two cases illustrate the value of direct customer interaction. It’s not guaranteed that you’ll make a breakthrough discovery conducting audience research, but if there is you certainly won’t find it sitting in the office and relying on old assumption or one-dimensional customer feedback.
What gives? Research does.
By trade, business leaders are adept observers, so it’s tempting to think we’ll always have a solid grasp on what our customers think. But to do so defies everything we know about marketing—between the customer’s constantly changing preferences and our own biases for our products, it’s a dangerous flaw to assume anything about the customer.
Humans are social creatures. We didn’t become great sales-people by sitting alone in our hut thinking “what would I want if I was my neighbor?” We got out in the public square and connected. We pushed products into our neighbor’s arms, studied their reaction, and came back the next day with an adjusted product. As people’s preferences changed, we were out there taking note and adjusting strategy.
But if in-person customer interaction is so valuable, why don’t we see every company doing it? How come so many business leaders and marketers rely just on assumptions, speculation, and third-party research, without a plan to challenge them or discover something new?
We’ve all heard some variation of the “yes, but…” conversation that squelches most research efforts.
“Yes, I know how much value it brings to the business or organization but it takes a lot of time and money. And we are doing well, so the costs outweigh the benefits. And anyways, there is no way to measure its value. Anecdotes don’t grow the business, data does.”
To some extent, it does take a leap of faith to choose to take the time and money to get out of the office and in front of your customers. But like any tactic, you can create metrics to measure the success and failure that reveal value.
Measuring Value — Small-Scale
Since the type of breakthrough discoveries that we covered in the opening of this article can’t happen during every research effort, you will need a way to measure smaller scale value.
It’s smart to check-in with the research team a few weeks after the research project to ensure the team is using what they learned. Ask:
- Have you been able to implement any of the knowledge and insights gained from the research in your work?
- Have you helped others process information about how to think about customers differently?
- Have you implemented the learning into a feature or product for a user?
- Did the learning have an impact on how to communicate with customers?
- In general, do you feel more connected to the company’s mission after conducting the research?
This type of short-term value measuring is what the lean startup community refers to as “validated learning.” It’s a way to measure value as you are starting a new type of effort that requires several iterations.
Take the Leap
To get your company to the point where it’s regularly visiting customers, you need develop a thoroughly structured process that reassures to everyone that the effort is efficient and valuable. To do so, consider these steps:
- Determine exactly what you want to find out and create a short, open-ended series of questions to ask and observations you want to make.
- Decide who you’re going to visit/observe/talk with and where you are going to interact with them.
- Delegate the recruiting and scheduling to ensure participation happens, and the process is convenient and easy for people to accomplish.
- Create a process for sharing what people find and a feedback loop to ensure people see the value of what they are doing.
As you’re developing a plan to get out of the office and visit your customers, remember to also keep the effort simple. You don’t need the whole team to go the first time around, and you don’t need to stay too long either. If you start small and build your client interaction process incrementally, you will start to make “customer visitation” a part of your company culture, allowing it to spread value throughout all departments.
We were all born to be social; business leaders and marketers especially. If you want to stay competitive, you need to get out there and get in front of the customer.
Now, go on, get!