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One of the best ways I know to understand your customers is to watch and listen to them whenever you can. Customer observation is a powerful, but unfortunately under-utilised tool these days for greater understanding.

It is, therefore, not surprising that most companies run to conduct market research when they want to know something about their customers. They then (hopefully) invite relevant employees from marketing, sales, packaging, communications or R&D to watch the interviews or group discussions. However, this intense but short observation is likely to do more harm than good.

Make Customer Observation Everyone’s Job

There are many, many opportunities for every employee in an organisation to encounter their customers. In a customer-centric organisation, everyone has annual objectives which include connecting with customers on a regular basis. This could be by:

  • listening to calls at the care centre
  • reading posts on social media and message boards
  • participating in / watching promotions, demonstrations, and samplings in retail outlets
  • joining interviewers of market research surveys

Some organisations also make a habit of getting their employees to watch and listen to their customers in direct observation or connection sessions. However, these need to be managed carefully to avoid people jumping too quickly to incorrect conclusions, as I’ll explain in more detail below.


The 5 Rules of Customer Observation

  1. ORDINARY: Look for the ordinary not the extraordinary, but do note the things that surprise you, as these can challenge your preconceptions and help you to keep an open mind.
  2. ATTENTIVE: Be careful to record only what you see and hear. Don’t start analysingwhat you think is going on or you will certainly miss something.
  3. ACCURATE & OBJECTIVE: This is the reason why you need to remain attentive, so you get an accurate record of what is happening. Keep notes of what you see; when, where, and how people behave. Context is as important as the actual discussions themselves, to understand where the customer who made the comment is coming from.
  4. TIMING: Observe and understand what is going on before and after the event, as well as during it. The event and comments made need to be put into the context of time and place within a person’s lifestyle and habits.
  5. DEBRIEF & ANALYSIS: Observation is most valuable if it is completed by an immediate debriefing session afterwards. Observers can together share, ask questions, and start to analyse what they have seen and heard.

These five points should ensure that everyone enjoys participating in these customer connection sessions. Both you and your customers will benefit from the experience and a maximum number of ideas and learnings will be gathered.

One last point for those of you working in International organisations; be aware of cultural differences. Explore and understand the culture where the observations are being made, especially if you are not a local. What is appropriate in one culture may be irrelevant or even offensive in another.

Checking things out with the locals before going into the field can save a lot of embarrassment – or worse! It is also useful to have local members help in the analysis of what was seen and heard so that the correct interpretation is made.

If you would like support in setting up customer observation sessions for your own brands, I would love to help you get the most out of them. Just contact me here.