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Observational research – Watching customers in the wild

A friend of mine ran a men’s underwear and t-shirt company for a while. To build a full profile of the customer, they needed to know exactly how many t-shirts and pairs of underwear their typical customer had, and in what condition. He asked them, and they obliged by telling him. But t-shirts and underwear were not the sort of things his customers monitored closely, so getting good feedback required a different approach.

Somehow, my friend convinced his customers to let him and his team visit their homes, root around their sock drawers and painstakingly record the number and condition of their undergarments. For whatever reason, these customers allowed it, and my friend in turn got valuable knowledge on how to create and sell these most basic items. This kind of hands-on checking how customers use your and others’ products is called observational research.

The consultant Paco Underhill pioneered this type of research in his book Why We Buy, which gave insights from his many years being a champion of observational research and running a company that advises the world’s leading retail and consumer products brands on how to optimize their offerings. Only Paco’s research could tell a company exactly how many times a female customer could stand being brushed up against by other customers before she’d leave the clothing rack…and the store. Or how many seconds male customers would spend looking for needed items before giving up.

Observational research is perhaps the only accurate way to get knowledge of how customers consume products in your category. Surveys are currently the market standard, but they have their limitations. Some customers openly lie, because they don’t want to admit to themselves or others when they’re not doing something the way they think they should, or if they fear being judged. In other cases, customers simply don’t know, but might make a guess to hide their ignorance. But by looking at what they do rather than what they report, observational research can help get around these issues. Low awareness, poor memories, and deception are no longer major obstacles to understanding what customers do and how they do it.

For physical shop locations such as dry cleaners, restaurants, retail stores and other locations, putting up in-store cameras and closely studying footage can help identify a baseline. For a comparison, visits to competitor shops (mystery shopping) can also yield insights on whether customers spend more or less time, and more or less money, than they do in your shop.

Of course, meeting customers where they shop isn’t always as simple as rooting through their sock drawer. For service companies, it may require a more innovative approach to understand how customers choose and use the service.

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