Most Important Post I Have Written This Year: What Does It Really Take To Know Your Customers?

This is long conversation and likely to be of interest to those of you who have experienced the limitations of knowledge as it is commonly understood. It may also be of interest to you if you glimpsed the radical difference between knowing and knowing about. If this is not you, then please go do something else.

How Useful Is The Knowledge Gained Through Market Research?

There is a huge industry that caters to the needs of business folks (often those in the marketing function) to know their customers or their target audience/market. I am speaking of the market research industry: qualitative (focus groups etc), quantitative (surveys), and a mix of each. In recent years, a new breed of player has entered this industry: the Voice of the Customer industry with its many technology solutions providers focussed almost exclusively on feedback through surveys. How useful is this research? What are its limits? What can you really know about your customer/s through this kind of knowing?

What Does It Take To Know Your Customer? The Short Answer

There is one well know market research organisation that sells and ‘supplies’ market research to many big brands who are keen to know their customers. This organisation knows it stuff: market research. Given this one would assume that the folks in this organisation would know all they need to know about their customers – those who commission the research (on their customers and target markets). What is actually the case?

One of the growth challenges, of this marketing research organisation, is a lack of understanding, knowledge, of its customers. How can this be?  This organisation has an army of professional market researchers, an array of market research technologies, a broad range of tools that it uses every day; and history/track record of conducting all kinds of research.

Clearly, market research, that this organisations does and sells, does not provide the kind of knowing that it is seeking of its own customers. So the short answer is it takes more than market research whether through focus groups or surveys. Whilst this kind of knowledge may be interesting, even somewhat useful, it is not sufficient.

What Does It Take To Know Your Customer? The Long Answer

To answer this question it is necessary to clearly understand-distinguish between ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing about’.  Once you get this distinction you get why it is that the market research companies has no real understanding of its customers. You will also get why it is that most advice given by sales gurus to sales reps is useless.

Should you use your valuable time to master this distinction?  Let me put it this way, I say, mastering this distinction is one of the most important distinctions, if not the most important, distinction to master for effective living.  Once you master this distinction you can focus on what really generates knowledge. And you will no longer need to be bewitched and misled by the many academic articles, business books, guru, advisors and consultant. You may even see that this stuff is worse than useless, it is dangerous!

What distinguishes ‘knowing’ from ‘knowing about’?

I invite you to read the following passage with someone who has grappled with this question not theoretically but through lived experience:

When I was working on the Meaning of Anxiety, I spent a year and a half in bed in a tuberculosis sanatorium. I had a great deal of time to ponder the meaning of anxiety – and plenty of first hand data on myself and my fellow anxious patients. In the course of time I studied two books ….: one by Freud, The Problem of Anxiety, and the other by Kierkegaard, TheConcept of Anxiety.

I valued highly Freud’s formulations …… But these were still theories.  Kierkegaard, on the other hand, described anxiety as the struggle as the living being with nonbeing which I could immediately experience in my struggle with death or the prospect of being a lifelong invalid……

What powerfully struck me then was that Kierkegaard was writing about exactly what my fellow patients and I were going through. Freud was not..… Kierkegaard was portraying what is immediately experienced by human beings in crisis….. Freud was writing on the technical level, where his genius was supreme ….. he knew about anxiety. Kierkegaard, a genius of a different order, was writing on the existential, ontological level; he knew anxiety.

- Rollo May, The Discovery Of Being

Have you gotten the distinction? Kierkegaard knew anxiety in the only way that generates knowing: through experiencing it, living it, being anxious.  Freud, knew about anxiety.

Failing to distinguish ‘knowing about’ from ‘knowing’ compromises effective action and generates unintended outcomes

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine that I can get a bunch of data about you: name, address, age, marital status, number of children, job, income, what you spend your money on, where you spend your time, your height, your weight, colour of your eyes……  Clearly I know about you. And I might get to thinking that I know you. Do I? Do I really know you as a living-breathing human being?

Before you answer that question, I ask you read and truly get present to the profound insight that is being communicated in the following passage:

The Mexican sierra has 17 plus 15 plus 9 spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being – an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman.

The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil smelling jar, remove a still colourless fish from the formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth…… There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed – probably the least important reality concerning the fish or yourself.

It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that colour, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way

- Steinbeck and Ricketts, 1971, pp 3-3

Summing Up

Life occurs in the arena, is dynamic, is ALWAYS relational, and every observation and ‘lesson’ is context specific.  Knowing occurs in the arenaGenuine, deep, insightful knowing occurs in and amongst those who spend sufficient time playing full out in the arena to transcend discrete objects-events and experience-see relationships, patterns and the deeper structures that generate the patterns and thus the events.

Most of what is spoken, written about and passes for knowledge in Western society is that which can be observed, relatively painlessly, by sitting in the stands observing what appears to be going on (as viewed by the observer with his particular ‘line of sight’) in the arena: knowing about. It is ok for non-relational objects. It is ok for abstract concepts. It is ok for that which is static. It is totally insufficient when it comes to the living: the individual, the social system, life in its fullest expression.

You can never know a human being (customer, employee) through focus groups or surveys. To know a human being you/i must walk in the shoes of that human being and experience situations, people, encounters as s/he experiences them. And this is not as easy as it sounds. Even when you walk in someone’s shoes it is useful to be aware that it is your feet doing the walking. Which means that to get an appreciation for how the other experiences ‘walking in his/her shoes’ you need to have the genuine openness-willingness-curiousity-patience to walk with the other for long enough to get a feel for the others feet such that you arrive at a place where you can walk in the others shoes.

I leave you with the following quotes:

There are certain things you can only know by creating them for yourself

- Werner Erhard

That which really matters in human life can only be known through lived experience; this knowing can rarely be communicated to those who have not created this knowing for themselves through lived experience.

- maz iqbal

Make it a great week. For my part, I find it a joy to be sharing that which I share with you especially after a wonderful experiential vacation in beautiful Dubrovnik.

 

Posted on June 9, 2014, in Customer Experience, Customer Insight (inc VoC), Knowledge, Social and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A very interesting post Maz, the point that really brought it home to me was the story about the fish.

    But the distinction is interesting, if I know about something, is that always irrelevant?

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  2. Hello James,
    Knowing and knowing about are both useful if used for that which they are fit for.

    Take driving. One needs to know about the driving regulations including speed limits in town, in country roads, on motorways…… What the various road markings and road signs mean.

    And let’s be clear with all this knowing about you will not be able to get into a car and drive it well. To drive a car you have to drive it. And no amount of theoretical learning will enable you to drive that car. It may even get in the way. How? By you seeking to impose your theoretical model on the car and by so doing not paying attention to the car.

    Recently, I helped my son to pass his driving test. What did I do? I sat with him, whilst he drove after he failed his driving test and observed. I noticed that he lacked confidence in approaching and driving on roundabouts. What did we do? We went on the roads when the road were quiet and he went around lots of roundabouts. When he got the feel for the roundabouts we went at a busier time. Again and again. When he got the feel for that, we went on the roads and roundabouts in peak traffic time….. As a result of this lived experience he can drive.

    Finally, please note that as a result of driving a car for over 25+ years, I can do so without thinking about it. It kind of happens on automatic pilot and I the last time I drove into someone was some 20 years ago. Yet if you asked me about how a car works (knowing about) you will find my clueless. Which is to say one can know something intimately and yet fail exams/test which check knowing about. And one can pass test that check for ‘knowing about’ and be clueless in the knowing. Now think about all the (wasted) effort that goes into interviewing: what is being tested?

    All the best
    maz

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  3. Hi Maz,
    Thank you for the post and for highlighting the distinction. Reflecting on it, it seems to me that ‘knowing about’ customers, say, focuses on what they did and how they did it and is a very external view. However, ‘knowing’ customers is about understanding more about who they really are and why they did what they did and, as such, is a much more internal view.

    I also wrote something (http://www.forbes.com/sites/adrianswinscoe/2014/06/05/are-you-committed-to-putting-the-customer-at-the-centre-of-what-you-do/) the other day along similar lines and encourages leaders to get closer to the ‘knowing’.

    Adrian

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