The Manager’s Guide to Communicating with Customers Collection

The battle cry of business, "know thy customer," is heralded in The Manager's Guide to Communicating with Customers Collection. This excerpt by Richard Bierck examines research by HBS professor Gerald Zaltman and consultant Paco Underhill on the downfalls of focus groups.
by Richard Bierck

Are you reaching your customers? The key is knowing who they are and what they want

To appeal to retail customers you need to understand what makes them tick. What better way to do that than by studying actual consumer behavior?

A great deal of money is now being spent on quantifying and analyzing what shoppers do. This observational work is the bread and butter of Paco Underhill, a consultant whose market research firm, Envirosell (New York City), has been studying retail shopper behavior for 20 years.

Teach a kid to hammer, and everything begins to look like a nail. You don't get a lot of depth in a focus group.
—Gerald Zaltman

Underhill shuns academic market research as being too theoretical. Yet some of this research supports Underhill's commonsense findings. Such is the case with the work of Gerald Zaltman, a Harvard Business School marketing professor who has brought qualitative methods to what has been a field dominated by the quantitatively obsessed. While Underhill's work focuses on what shoppers do, Zaltman's deals with why they do what they do.

Both approaches hold myriad insights for manufacturers, retailers, marketers, and commercial developers. Businesspeople seeking to craft a more effective message to, and to get lucrative insights from, the shopping public would be well advised to listen to what Underhill and Zaltman have to say. Following are some of their communication secrets.

Examine the messages you're sending. Are they the right ones for your customers? Are you getting them across? Many communication errors stem from a naïve belief among marketing people that they're necessarily trying to connect with people exactly like themselves. For example, many retailers overlook issues of nationality, language, ethnicity, and age.

"I was in Paris recently, and the cafes had menus printed in five languages," says Underhill. "But in South Florida, an area heavily populated by Hispanics, there are restaurants that don't have menus printed in Spanish." In Washington, D.C., there are drugstores that, "though they serve 100% African-American clientele, have hundreds of products for blondes."

In a labor market where youth seems to hold a premium, especially for marketing jobs, this notion is deadly for those trying to sell to an aging population of baby boomers. "Some of it is just learning manners," says Underhill. "If I go to a Web site that's hard to read because it's got funky type face, and I can't get service when I call, well, that's a problem." And many stores post signs with print far too small for many of their customers—especially those of advancing age—to read.

Don't rely heavily on focus groups. "Focus groups tend to be like the law of the hammer," says Zaltman. "Teach a kid to hammer, and everything begins to look like a nail. You don't get a lot of depth in a focus group. People tend to say what they think they're supposed to say, rather than what they're actually thinking. And because there are eight to twelve people, there's just not enough time for each person to talk. The maximum number for effective interpersonal communication is three."

Instead, hire professional interviewers to probe typical customers' shopping motivations. Interviewers should be careful not to prompt the interviewees into saying what they want to hear—a common error that wreaks havoc with the results of customer surveys and interviews.

Reserve your best customer-communication efforts for the areas well inside the store. Underhill has found that customers typically don't notice things placed just inside a retail outlet. The reason: this is a "transition zone" in which customers shift from their fast parking-lot pace to a slower shopping speed. As a result, much of what you may want to tell the customer in this area isn't getting across.

Some stores fill this area with barriers, such as low shelves of bargain merchandise that don't block customers' views of the rest of the store. But this can be risky. Customers sometimes just grab the bargains and leave without venturing into the higher-margin merchandise.

Communication itself sells products. Underhill has found that retail environments that foster communication between couples or groups who shop together do more business. A pleasing environment with attractive lighting and décor not only makes an individual shopper linger, but it makes groups or pairs more reluctant to leave. So they stick around and talk about the items—a process that leads to more purchases.

Understand that shoppers are on a mental journey. "Most of store managers' attention is on what happens between the aisle and the register, and that's where so much money is spent on research and package design," says Zaltman. "That's important, but there's a much longer journey for which the store is just a way point."

For example, he says, when a person is shopping for luggage, he's thinking about the vacation he's taking the luggage on. "He's thinking about clean clothes, getting the car ready, the whole trip, and all of these things cast a shadow on the luggage purchase. But these origins are often ignored."

Zaltman believes that the emotions underlying a motivation to purchase can be unearthed by research that probes the images consumers associate with a product or commodity. His patented method of doing this, called the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), centers on having interview subjects select images that best reflect their state of mind concerning the item in question.

The images consumers select reflect a range of emotions. "That's because all points on the shopping journey have both pleasure and pain," he says. "Pleasure and pain exist close to one another, and one can be triggered by the other. The checkout person could be unpleasant. Or, he could do something nice that makes it a positive experience for the shopper. But if the shopper comes home with something for a child and the child hates it, this good feeling can go out the window, and frustration can become the governing perception."

Take time to extract meaning from data. Too often, marketing people assume that the data's the thing—that it tends to yield up significance on its face. But often, this isn't the case. The data may tell you that something is happening, but not necessarily why. Those who make assumptions about why often miss the target.

"Oftentimes, people confuse having a lot of data with having a deep understanding of their customers," says Zaltman. "Another misconception is that it doesn't take much time to understand what's going on."

Companies that have succeeded at probing the psyches of their customers, he says, have "taken a lot of time to extract meaning from the data. They understand that they have to dig more deeply and think imaginatively. Most managers don't want to devote this much time to thinking. But they would never go to a surgeon who approaches his job the way they approach theirs, nor would they send their children to a school that has the same atmosphere as their company; it doesn't foster learning."