How To Reveal Customer Motivations

Allen AdamsonApril 26, 20239 min

Claudia Kotchka played a key role in figuring out what parents (mostly mothers) want from their children’s diapers. She was in charge of P&G’s design, tasked with bringing new innovation tools and techniques into the company. But it was incredibly difficult to get marketing on board because the experiences reported by her consumers didn’t match up with what marketing thought were the important parts of selling diapers. It was only when IDEO came on and talked about the importance of hearing from every corner of the process and every angle of the experience to be had from your product that they were able to make progress.

IDEO teaches a user-centered, customer-centered design, which means finding out what your customer really wants and then, of course, giving it to them. But discovering the comprehensive sense of what customers want is difficult. Kotchka described how it went when they tried to tackle the Diaper Dilemma. Pampers asked consumers one question: What do you want from your diapers? Answer: no leaks. They thought it was that simple. One question, one answer. Then Huggies came out with a diaper that did not leak but managed to do so with a plastic sheet layer that was soft and quiet. Turns out, that was really and equally important.

Moms don’t want their kids to crinkle when they pick them up, and they don’t want to feel like they are wrapping their kids in plastic. This was a much harder answer to elicit organically. And it goes on from there. “No one ever asked for an iPhone, right? They can’t tell you; you’ve got to figure it out yourself,” said Kotchka. “I’m still shocked at the number of people today who do focus groups, who go out and ask the customer what they want. It’s just a complete waste of time. And so we had to teach people to do ethnography to find different ways to figure out what people need and want and what they do.”

Ask The Right Questions

Asking the right questions, then, involves more than just, well, asking questions. Making sure the questions come from different areas and approaches is key. Many years ago, I worked with Pizza Hut on its branding. Business was pretty good, and we were doing research on how to further strengthen the brand. We spoke with consumers in markets all across the country. We asked questions that probably won’t surprise you: How do you like Pizza Hut? Are you satisfied with the taste? The responses were equally banal: Yes, we enjoy Pizza Hut. It’s a nice place to eat and it tastes good. It’s usually hot; we go there often. And so on.

But there was one moderator who was particularly skilled at asking questions—the right questions. She didn’t ask people to tell her about their experiences by saying whether they were happy or unhappy because, it turns out, people don’t actually like being negative. They’ll say “fine” before they say “bad.” Instead, this moderator asked, “If Pizza Hut were to go out of business, what would you do?”

It was a huge “aha” moment—because every respondent, without hesitation, said, “I’d go to Papa John’s” or another well-known pizza alternative. No one expressed sadness about the absence of the Pizza Hut option. So, despite having expressed satisfaction with Pizza Hut, it was clear the feeling was devoid of a deep connection.

This brings me to Leslie Zane, founder and CEO of Triggers® Brand Consulting and a leading expert in unpacking human instinct, who started with the simple statement that “companies with high satisfaction rates can still be in decline.” In other words, people can be satisfied without forming any attachment to a company or brand. Brand and product strength is not about whether or not a customer is content to go to you; it’s about whether or not you and your brand are an entrenched part of their lives.

The other thing Zane explained to me about not asking the right questions is that people will tell you what they think you want to hear, or they’ll say what is most immediately on the top of their head, which isn’t necessarily their true sense of things. Between this and the fact that habits are hard to break, it’s no wonder that focus groups and other attempts to dive deeply into the thinking of customers can be so frustrating.

At the heart of your inquiry must be: How do people live their lives? What do they already use and how and why do they use it? How do they come to decide to make the choices that they do? What are the barriers they experience to gaining access to what they need and/or want? What kind of learning curve can they tolerate, and what is the best means of access to its adoption? When so much comes down to customer service, it becomes one of those touchpoints that, when broken, are so hard to recover from. How are those failures defined? Broadening our perspective to include the entirety of the customer journey is key, but it isn’t a smooth path. As Rajeev Batra, marketing professor at the University of Michigan, puts it so well,

You need to examine pain points that hadn’t been salient before, that create new opportunities to alter how products are built. The whole research approach of looking at the entire customer journey, mapping it, and so on is something that’s relatively new to research professionals, and the methodologies are not that common and easy. It’s easier to sort of wave your hands and come up with a customer-journey map out of thin air. How do you actually get the data to have an empirically based, factually based customer journey, such that it identifies the pain points in each stage? This is still challenging in terms of the research methodology.

More Than What Is, Ask How It Might Be

I return to Zane, who explained that the way you understand what customers are really thinking is by giving them permission to free themselves from their fixed view of the world—from this, you’ll get at the customer insight that will truly change behavior. “We don’t ask people, ‘What do you want?’

We ask people to create a new thing. We tell them to create their fantasy experience. We invite them to suspend reality. ‘Don’t worry about how this would be done, or whether it can be done—don’t even go there. Dream about how you would want it to be.’ And what they invariably do is reach really high.” That is the input you want to hear. Those are the answers to “What do you want?” that will drive you toward offering an experience that will transform how someone does something.

Zane offered a great example of this from her experience querying people on behalf of a pharmaceutical company. When asked what their fantasy was regarding their medication, Zane reported to me, They answered, “I walk outside, and the rain starts falling. And inside the raindrops is this healing balm that comes over me, and my disease is done.” Well, what does that tell you? It tells you a lot of things. It tells you that they don’t want the medication to be strong; it tells you that gentleness is more important than efficacy. It tells you there’s an anti-drug movement, and people don’t want chemicals in their bodies. So the idea is really to use the unconscious mind to access the highest-order ideas, which otherwise would be left on the table.

Most of the work Jeremy Dawkins, global head of design at ?What If! (a part of Accenture), does focuses on the challenges that many of the company’s clients are grappling with in ever-changing markets. How do they activate an innovative mindset to identify and create opportunities for lasting growth and speak to what does not yet exist?

We talked about the need to start with the human experience, looking at consumer problems from their point of view. Whatever it is that you are going to invent has to fit into someone’s life. You can’t just have people in a lab exclaiming about what they’ve discovered yet having no clear idea about what to do with it. Dawkins shared a humorous anecdote about a client in Asia who said they had lots of ideas for 5G technology but that no one was interested—they’d started their efforts without researching potential uses for 5G. Of all the topics we touched on, however, the most important to his work was the necessity of being able to look at the world with fresh eyes and knowing how to hear what is being said to you.

As Dawkins described to me, if you ask a teenage boy how long he spends at the mirror grooming his hair—once you’ve defined what “grooming” means—his answer will be a fraction of what actually takes place in his room or bathroom every morning. No one likes to self-report the effort and time they spent that others might consider a waste. Yet we rely on understanding what is happening in the minds, homes, offices, and cars (among the many spaces we inhabit) of our fellow humans in order to do the work of improving experiences.

The Starting Point

It’s time to get your head in the game and get inside the head of your customers. That’s the starting point: to understand and to look for opportunities. But before you jump in, stop. Take a walk outside, take some deep breaths, do whatever your version of breaking away is, of allowing things to settle in your head, and get to a place where you can bring fresh eyes to the process.

Starting where Jerry Seinfeld did at the beginning of all of his bits, asking “Have you ever wondered why people do the things they do the way they do them . . . ?” is a form of fresh eyes that includes empathy, curiosity, and seeing clearly what others don’t. Once you’ve cleaned your glasses thus, you can see more sharply what is in front of you, around the corner, and down the road. Look at the market through different lenses from different perspectives—because the best opportunities are not those in front of your nose. On this, LVMH’s group managing director, Antonio Belloni, has some gems of wisdom to offer.

I keep this picture in my mind of the established market, which I see like a table. All the existing players are sitting at the table and used to doing things in a certain way. They know how the game is played. They are optimizing, not reinventing. But standing above the table with a different perspective are a number of startups. They have not been at this table, so they don’t know the “rules.” These startups are in a position to look at lots of tables and can come up with a different perspective, a fresh mind. They can often find pain points or points of friction or other, often easier, ways of doing things that the players at the table don’t see or have learned to accept as just the way things are.

The market is sort of like a game of football or baseball. There are so many points of view from which it can be seen and understood: offense, defense, umps, fans, commentators, TV viewers at home. How do you get into each of those spots to see it all? The idea of the lenses is to help you broaden your perspective and see things that others are missing.

Belloni offers a great, albeit counterintuitive, hint: “It’s easier for the nonincumbent, for the people outside of the market, to see what needs to be seen. To think with that mentality, you have to cultivate doubt, much more than certainties, in your people.” It is with this sense of doubt that you can bring a fresh mind to seeing things through the many lenses I will provide here.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Allen Adamson. Excerpted from Seeing the How: Transforming What People Do, Not Buy, To Gain Market Advantagecopyright © 2023 by Allen P. Adamson. Reprinted with permission from Matt Holt Books, an imprint of BenBella Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

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