We all know that understanding and meeting customer needs is key to business success, but what are some of the obstacles that can get in our way? Together, members of our in-house behavioural science team HRW Shift, Dr Alexandra Petrache and Oliver Day, delve deep into this topic via two insightful books by thought-leaders in customer-centric research. Read on for inspiration and top tips for your research practice.

But first, a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when businesses forget to listen to customers…

A fateful lesson in not hearing what customers need
Back in the mid-2000s, a new CEO joined a large discount-focused American retailer and wanted to make many changes very quickly. They were open about not relating to the company’s traditional customer base and when shoppers reacted negatively to ‘flashier’ advertising campaigns and the discontinuation of discounting programmes, the CEO did not blame the new policies. Instead, they focused on educating customers on “how we’re doing things now”.

The result? Customers no longer got the buzz they sought from finding the best deals. They left in droves.

The company saw a huge drop in sales and this CEO was gone within 18 months.

The lesson? We are all fallible and we are all influenced by biases in our thinking – ways our decision-making deviates from rational models. Even CEOs, researchers, marketers and sales professionals. We need to be aware of our biases to help us listen to our customers whole-heartedly.

An overview of the books

  • What your customer wants and can’t tell you” – by Melina Palmer, a behavioural economics consultant who teaches at the Texas A&M Human Behavior Lab.
  • What To Ask: How to Learn What Customers Need But Don’t Tell You” – by Andrea Belk Olson, a behavioural science consultant who teaches in the Entrepreneurial Center at The University of Iowa.

As you may guess from the similar titles, both authors cover common ground on how to overcome biases in research, sharing stories of how people have fallen for (or overcome) the many pitfalls of trying to achieve customer-centric goals. The authors also share techniques to better enter the customer’s world. Examples include:

  • Gemba Walks: from the Japanese, gemba (“real place”), this is a way to have in-context interviews with research participants where they actually use your products and services. It helps challenge your assumptions and surface factors that research participants may have become habituated to.
  • The Delphi Technique: a structured way to use group consensus in decision-making to overcome individual assumptions and biases.

Expect to finish both books equipped with a wealth of knowledge about the heuristics (subconscious rules of thumb) and biases that impact our decisions, as well as some tweaks and strategies for overcoming those. Below we’ve summarised some of our favourites and how they can help make your research even more customer-centric.

Four biases to watch out for in customer-centric research

Status Quo bias – highlighted by Belk Olson

People tend to prefer their current situation to remain stable and so resist change or new ideas to keep things as they are. According to Belk-Olson, customers might resist even the most beneficial of changes. Or you might hear internal stakeholders say of customer feedback:

  • “It’s just an isolated incident”
  • “That’s normal – all customers moan about that”
  • “They don’t understand our product. They just need to be educated”

The irony (which was most likely lost on the CEO in our cautionary tale!) is that whether one or many customers say something, sometimes people can avoid listening to avoid having to confront the need for change.

Affinity bias – highlighted by Belk Olson

We gravitate towards those who we feel are part of or closer to our in-group – the group we feel we belong to. In research, this creates a risk that people dismiss or agree with what a customer says about their unmet needs based on how similar or relatable they perceive that customer or segment to be.

Priming and Anchoring – highlighted by Palmer

We’ll start this behavioural principle with a poem!

Behavioural economics gets shared the most,

On the Brainy Business podcast (where Palmer is host).

Listen in the car as you drive to the coast.

Learn lots of new concepts; across social media you’ll post.

Say,…what do you put in a toaster?

If, like us, you said “toast”, you were primed!

Priming is when features in our environment non-consciously affect our decision-making. Anchoring, a type of priming, is when the first information we get influences our later decisions. Palmer gives a great priming example where a store had two ads for chocolate bars. One said: “Snickers bars: buy them for your freezer”, and the other “Snickers bars: buy 18 for your freezer”. The second ad, with its absurdly high number, boosted sales by 38%. It made customers anchor on 18 and adjust to a higher quantity purchase than usual!

How can you overcome or leverage these biases in research?

At HRW, we’re dedicated to helping you access the reality of your customers, whether consumers, HCPs, or patients, in myriad ways.

  • To break-down the barriers to change from status quo bias, we can involve your stakeholders throughout the research process.
  • We can help you build empathy internally for diverse customer groups by creating rich interactive patient stories and HCP segmentation infographics that help overcome affinity bias.
  • We can help your target audience anchor onto the information that both matters to them and that you want to transmit. For example: ensuring it’s the first thing they see and helping make it something memorable, like a rhyme, mnemonic, or a number!

We hope this article has given you inspiration for your next project, piqued your interest in these fascinating reads, and given an idea of how working with HRW Shift can help with your customer-centric research needs. To reach out to the team, please contact shift@hrwhealthcare.com

By Alexandra Petrache and Oliver Day


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