The Pursuit of Customer Insight

The mayor of Santa Clarita, California annually holds a hairdresser’s luncheon.  The goal of the special event is a focused one--to learn what citizens are really concerned about.  The mayor knows citizens will tell their hairdressers what they would never report in a city-wide survey.

The general manager of a large midtown hotel held quarterly focus groups with the taxi drivers who frequented his hotel property waiting to transport departing guests to the airport.  He knew the taxi drivers would get a more honest earful than the hotel front desk clerks could extract from their way too familiar “How was your stay?”

Organizations around the world make it a practice of seeking customer feedback.  One major study estimated at least 95% of all companies engage in customer inquiry in some form.  Armed with reams of surveys, focus group reports and suggestion box forms, the marketing department slices, dices and presents to leaders “what we know for sure about our customers.”  Nods of confirmation from the tippy top of the organization tell the data presenters they have hit another home run--all is well on mahogany row.  But, is information and understanding the best goal for this well-played game?

The enormous investment by organizations in gathering customer feedback is primarily to gain either confirming or corrective information.  Data collection is to provide answers to two questions: how are we doing and, what do we need to fix.  But, today’s customers are bored with business as usual.  They show their allegiance to innovative companies---those with a passion for the inventive.  And, traditional customer feedback and evaluation will not effectively inform innovation.

We were consulting with a large construction company in the Northeast.  They had asked us to help them better understand what drove loyalty among their business customers.  The CEO was unexpectedly delayed and joined the results presentation after we were thirty minutes and twenty PowerPoint slides into our story.  We were at a transition point and, as he took his seat, he asked a show stopping question: “What can you tell us that I do not already know or can figure out from your written report?”

At first we assumed he was being either cute or caustic.  But, this was not our first rodeo with this client so we did what we learned to do in consultant school when confronted with an uncertain client situation--ask a question!  We politely asked him:  “What is behind your question?”

“I appreciate the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of your research work,” he continued, realizing he had sounded curter than he had intended.  “I am looking for insight, not understanding. What were the surprises in your loyalty study?  What are our customers communicating without saying?  What is a big aha that we can translate into a competitive advantage…or, at least a deeper customer relationship?”

His barrage of questions was more rhetorical than accusatory--intended for everyone in the meeting room.  And, the queries got us thinking.  How do we push our pursuit of understanding to the point of insight?  Does insight emanate from great rapport with the customer, smart questioning, or shrewd analysis?  What if we completely rethought the “ask a question, get an answer” process of customer intelligence gathering?  How can customer input help inform innovation?  “Breakthroughs,” said Andy Grove, former Chairman of Intel, “Come from an instinctive judgment of what customers might want if they knew to think about it.”

When Moen Inc. hired Continuum to help them develop a new line of showerheads, Continuum got permission to film customers taking showers in their own homes and used the findings in the new design.  Among the insights gleaned were that people spent half their time in the shower with their eyes closed and 30 percent of their time avoiding water altogether.  According to an article in the New York Times, the data contributed to the new Moen Revolution showerhead becoming a best-seller. invites their website community to vote on the coolest t-shirts designed by fellow amateurs.  The winning entries become their product offerings, providing great exposure for budding designers and a sense of ownership by the community.  Mountain Dew created a user-generated movement to launch a new product.  The process (called Dewmocracy) involved over three million customers in various phases of the design, development, and marketing a new drink ultimately called White Out.  Think about the insights Treadless and Mountain Dew gained from watching the choices customers made.

A major bank client created an elaborate game and invited customers to play.  Some of the decision points required customers to talk with other customers to make a call on their next move.  The approaches customers took to many of the options confronting them were surprises to the bank employees administrating the game.  It triggered confirmation of their insights with a larger group of customers and ultimately led to offerings unplanned before the game results.  The information leads to understanding which leads to insight.

We are in a new era of customer requirements.  Today’s customers are not only picky and fickle, they are “all about me” vain.  Their “have it your way” orientation means successful organizations will need to remain on the hunt for creative differentiation.  Retooling the organization to effectively approach the marketplace with imagination requires rethinking the means and methods for gaining customer intelligence.  Success will come only when the recipients of customer input are able to say as our construction company CEO would say:  “We learned something that surprised us.”

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.