Trying to Figure Out Your Customer?

UPDATED: November 25, 2019
PUBLISHED: September 29, 2014
Trying to Figure Out Your Customer?

You’ve probably seen #nofilter floating around on Instagram or Facebook. Translation: The hashtag means that no photographic filters or special effects have been applied to enhance or alter its related picture. What you see is what you get—it’s an authentic representation.

As marketers or researchers, our job is to discover consumer truths. We accomplish this through qualitative or quantitative research, understanding market trends and firsthand observation. But sometimes the truth can get altered, polished or—in some other way—filtered, which can ultimately lead to faulty decision-making or subpar execution in market.

Here are some common “filters” to watch out for in consumer research and a few quick tips to help avoid them:

1. The Curse of Knowledge: If you’ve been working on a brand or in an industry for a long time, you can start to feel like you know it all—that there’s nothing new under the sun. To cope with vast amounts information, the brain naturally develops shortcuts that inform how the world is organized. 

A simple example of this in marketing is a Target Consumer description—we can’t possibly know every single person who fits within the definition, so we compile and summarize data to create a story for a single composite individual, who is the Target Consumer. The problem is that if we observe something that doesn’t fit with what we know, or what we think we know, we tend to unconsciously overlook it or even consciously discount it (in psychological terms, to prevent “cognitive dissonance”). The problem is that sometimes the pieces that don’t fit can actually lead to the biggest insights.

Quick tips: Get perspective from colleagues outside your immediate brand or category on a research report—see what stands out to them. Invite newer team members, interns or even business partners who usually don’t participate in consumer research to attend and contribute. Use a moderator with limited experience with your company or industry.

2. Drawing Conclusions Too Early: It’s the end of the second of six consumer interviews and you’ve reviewed only half of the latest survey data. You’re starting to see some patterns and our biologically lazy brains want to stop working so hard.

Instead, you make the flying leap to a key learning point and switch your thinking into “action mode”—what to fix or adjust or add. The problem is that you’re so busy drawing conclusions, coming up with recommendations or literally revising the research stimuli in real time, that you miss critical learning and only get a fraction of the research value.

Quick tips: When doing qualitative research, write your notes in actual consumer language and capture real-time observations as much as possible. This not only forces you to stay mentally present, but also gives you great input for analysis and synthesis later. Take time to process what you’ve learned before drawing conclusions. If possible, give a bit of time between the conclusion of qualitative research and the team debriefing session, or read over all the data from a quantitative study to let your brain begin finding all the patterns before jumping to the executive summary.

3. In-Going Personal Biases or Hypotheses: Developing hypotheses before consumer research is a good thing, right? It depends on whether you’re approaching the research with an “inquiry” or an “advocacy” mindset. With an inquiry mindset, you have questions and hypotheses, and you are seeking the answers, to either prove or disprove your hypotheses. If you have an “advocacy” mindset, you are only seeking to prove your existing assumptions and are looking and listening for data points that support your argument.

There’s a time and place for advocacy-based approaches in business, but to uncover deep, rich consumer insights, an inquiry mindset will get you to the complete truth, the salient information needed for decision-making.

Quick tips: Before a consumer research project of any kind, spend some time as a team sharing and capturing assumptions and hypotheses. Acknowledging those up front can make you conscious of any potential biases, and capturing assumptions as a group can help hold everyone accountable after the fact. Once you have the conclusions, go back to that list and do a check. If everything you learned lines up, you either didn’t need to do the research in the first place or you all deserve a big raise—or consider whether some existing biases or assumptions may have colored your interpretations.

Make sure you use #nofilter to get the most authentic and insightful view of your consumers or customers the next time you’re involved in customer research.

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Sarah Buckley Faulkner owns Faulkner Strategic Consulting, which is dedicated to deep consumer and market insights that drive innovation to grow brands. Prior to starting her consultancy, she spent 14 years at Procter & Gamble leading consumer and market research across multiple billion dollar brands and corporate innovation incubators.