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12 Nov

A mystery sits at the heart of marketing.

"People don't want the best burger in the world. They want one which tastes just like the one they had last time."

— Ray Kroc (Founder – McDonald's)

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you want to run a successful business, you need to listen to your customers. But I doubt if any McDonald's customer told Ray that they wanted their burgers to be reliable.

Most likely, they would have suggested improvements. Or asked him to try new kinds of ingredients. New kinds of burgers. Perhaps, even venture into other categories of fast food.

But hardly anyone must've told him to keep doing what he was already doing. Because that adds nothing to the conversation. And people want to be perceived as useful when asked how to improve the product.

This piece is about all these tiny nuances that can trip you up while studying customer feedback or doing user research.

To start off with, there are various ways in which brands try to listen to their customers, both quantitative and qualitative. These can be

  • Customer interviews
  • Online surveys
  • Customer service call recordings
  • Queries received on the website chatbox
  • Opinions, reviews, and complaints on social media, Discord servers, and WhatsApp groups
  • Website Analytics and Pixel Data
  • Net Promoter Score
  • Email correspondence

The list is clearly not meant to be exhaustive and the resourceful marketer is always on the lookout for whispers from unconventional places and conversations. This is highly unstructured and qualitative data, and also the source of most user insights.

For example, this man just found out that when allowed to pick candy from a basket on Halloween, kids don't pick Twix.

Why? Why does this trump organized activities that are specifically designed to listen to customers?

There are many reasons.

1. The cockroach problem.

For a single customer who complains, there are 10 waiting for someone to speak up, and 100 others who are sharing not-so-favourable opinions about your brand amongst their friends and peers.

And these dissatisfied customers will jump ship as soon as a new competitor arrives on the scene. They will leave, never to come back again. But it won’t show up in the data.

The thing product people do not realise is that only a terrible experience or a brilliant experience gets reported, because the activation energy needed to go out of one’s way to leave a review is only present when the experience has been a 1/10 or a 10/10.

So, whenever you listen to a customer complain, don't tell yourself,

"Oh well, it's just a one-off."

No, you can't do that.

You have to approach the problem like it's a cockroach infestation. If you see one, there are probably hundreds you haven't seen yet.

2. How people opine in public is very different from how they behave in private.

When there are eyes on you, you behave quite differently.

There are many charity-driven brands, and brands that do a lot of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). When surveyed publicly, customers say they love this brand because of how charitable they are and how much social good they are doing.

But, let me ask you a question.

If these customers were to find a superior product at a cheaper price from a competitor who doesn't do charity or CSR, would they still buy from this brand?

You need to test whatever your customers say is important for them to see if it's actually true.

3. You can easily confuse the voice of the vocal minority for the voice of the silent majority.

Especially with social media and all the virtue signaling it has birthed, people's stated preferences around what they want are vastly different from what they actually want.

Also, non-users with strong opinions can overshadow users who don't have such strong beliefs so as to vote for them with their wallets.

They usually are happy with a useful product that's priced in line with its utility — no more, no less.

Their lives do not revolve around brands nor do they really care about your mission statement. They just want a product that works for them.

4. People don't always know why they do what they do.

When you survey your customers and ask them "What made you buy our product?", the answers they'll offer will be what the answers generated by the conscious part of their brains. They will point out to a feature or a specification that is already articulated on the product website or its marketing communications. They will talk about price, features, and specifications.

But is it really true?

The same happens in the reverse situation as well: asking customers why they stopped using your product or dropped from your landing page instead of registering.

In the convenience economy, reasons for why someone dropped out can be far too many. If you ask people why, they will hardly recall what happened. It may be that they misunderstood a piece of copy, some technical glitch happened on their end, they got distracted by the show being watched on the living room TV, they went to the loo and got lost doomscrolling Instagram or Twitter...

Your Google Analytics data will show you people dropped, but it won't show you why they dropped. The law of large numbers will help you here, I guess, to get at a proximate answer.

5. Resonance can happen at any level.

Sometimes, the most minor change in some detail or piece of communication can attract a previously unattracted consumer.

Here's a famous example:In the 1960s, Albert Lasker — a marketer — convinced his client Lucky Strike to play up the benefits of the industry-wide practice of "toasting" tobacco.

The tagline for the campaign:

"It's toasted."

But you know what? All cigarette tobacco is toasted, lol.

The only difference is, no brand up until that point talked about tobacco being "toasted": a word that conveys a warm and delicious feeling.

Lucky Strike was the first brand to talk about its benefits in the copy, which stressed on the unique benefits of toasting, including improved flavor and reduced acidity, supposedly making it easier on the throat.

Just one novel product description and the perception changed overnight. Who woulda thunk?

A consumer might be attracted by the imagery you used, or some word they came across, or an aspiration and imagination the copy invoked, or a mix of all these things that led to a vibe they got attracted to.

You cannot know this in the short term, and patterns will only emerge in the long run. And don't ask your customers, they won't be able to put a finger on why exactly they bought your product or what their hidden subconscious desires and motivations were.

People like making up reasons that are socially acceptable and safe to say out loud to avoid the discomfort of not having a clear answer or a socially unacceptable answer.

Another example:

Let's say you're running a usability test, getting users to go through your site. And at one point you see them struggling. They're spending a lot of time on this page. And they show visible signs of confusion around what action to take on the page.

But when you survey them about their experience navigating the website, they'll tell you everything was great. So something happened there which made them say the opposite of what really happened. Maybe they were too lazy to articulate their exact emotions. Maybe they didn't want to be seen as dumb. Maybe it was something else.

I. Don't. Know.

6. People say they want what they've already seen. But if you offer them what they wanted, they may not like it.

Stated wants and revealed wants are quite different, especially when it comes to entertainment or content products where novelty and interestingness rule.

A reader might say that they want to read about marketing and economics, but they won't be able to tell you exactly why and what they will like reading under marketing and economics.

Maybe they're just interested in consumer psychology, but they didn't know what it was called, so they stated marketing instead.

7. Surveys inherently have a selection bias.

Only users who are most invested and vocal about your product will take your surveys. Hence, the survey data you collect may or may not be representative of the opinions of users who didn't take the survey.

8. Product stickiness is both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing: people love using your product and keep coming back to it. Hurray.

The curse: they will often say they're going to leave your product because it goes against one or more of their strongly held public values. But it rarely happens. It's just a stated preference while the revealed preference is quite different. Another reason is a sticky core feature can sometimes act as a confounding variable when you want to measure the success of newer features that may not be as sticky or good.

CRED coins are worthless and people keep complaining about it under every Kunal Shah tweet, but they still keep using CRED.

Why? Because the credit card payment experience is vastly better than existing bank apps. There may be other reasons, too.

Twitter has come under a lot of attack and media scrutiny since Elon Musk took over, but its usage has actually increased. I wonder why.

Think I'm being cynical and untrusting of my fellow human beings?

Well, you need to expose yourself to the market to know all the ways in which you can get fooled by public perception.When it comes to voting, trust those who vote with their wallet, not with their words.

And when it comes to user feedback, take it with huge pinch of salt.

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