What does it take to generate deep contextual customer insight?

Do you know your customers?

Is it possible to know your customers simply through ‘at a distant’ listening methods like NPS, post transaction surveys, social media, text mining customer call records etc?  I get that many of you are convinced that you do know your customers.  You are that you know what matters to your customers.  You are that your VoC listening programmes provide you with insight into your customers.

If only it were that simple.  Insight, deep contextual insight, is not that easily gathered. What am I pointing at?  Let me share a story with you, a story that Irvin Yalom, an existential psychotherapist, tells in his book The Gift of Therapy:

“Decades ago I saw a patient with breast cancer ….. been locked in a long, bitter struggle with her naysaying father.  Yearning for some form of reconciliation …. she looked forward to her father’s driving her to college – a time when she would be alone with him for several hours. 

But the long-anticipated trip proved to be a disaster: her father behaved true to form by grousing at length about the ugly, garbage littered creek by the side of the road. She, on the other hand, saw no litter whatsoever in the beautiful, rustic, unspoilt stream. She could find no way to respond and eventually, lapsing into silence, they spent the remainder of the trip looking away from each other.

Later, she made the same trip alone and was astounded to note that there were two streams – one on each side of the road. ‘This time I was the driver’, she said sadly, ‘and the stream I saw through my window on the driver’s side was just as ugly and polluted as my father had described it’.

But by the time she learned to look out of her father’s window, it was too late – her father was dead and buried.”

Please note that the daughter did not get access to her father’s experience until she physically sat in his seat and travelled the same route that her father travelled.  Or put differently, that little distance between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat made all the difference!  Are you still convinced that you understand your customers and their experience, that ‘at a distant’ VoC listening programmes give you the requisite understanding of your customers?

What does it take to generate this deep contextual insight?  Empathy

I say that if you want to excel at the game of service, of customer experience and/or customer-centricity, you have to get deep insight into the lives of your customers.  I say that if you want to design great customer experiences you have to get deep contextual insight into the lives of your customers.  I say that if you want to cultivate a customer-centric organisation then you have to get deep insight into the lives of your customers AND the people who work inside your organisation.  And I say that you cannot get this deep contextual insight through ‘at a distant’ listening programmes. I say that to get this deep contextual insight you have to cultivate empathy.

How do you cultivate empathy for your customers and the people working in your organisation?

The short answer is go beyond ‘at a distant’ VoC listening programmes. Get out of the office and get on the front line.  Put on the shoes of the front line employees and interact with, sell to and serve customers.  Go further and put on the shoes of the customers, sit where she sits, and travel the path that she travels. If you have the patience for the longer answer then I recommend setting aside 20 minutes to watch the follow informative video: http://youtu.be/G9jC1ThqTNo

The 6 habits of highly empathic people

Here are the six habits of highly empathic people as set out and discussed by Roman Krznaric in the video above:

  1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers
  2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
  3. Get into extreme sport – extreme sport of experiential empathy
  4. Practice the art of conversation
  5. Inspire mass [empathic] action and social change
  6. Develop an ambitious imagination

Final words

The price of deep contextual insight into the lives of our customers and the people who serve them is to travel the path travelled by George Orwell and Patricia Moore.  You will get what I am pointing at if you watched the video.  There are no short cuts.  I say that it is only once you have that deep contextual insight that you will be in a position to even know what questions to ask on VoC surveys, what to listen to on social media, and how to make sense of the that which shows up on VoC listening posts.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant. Passionate about enabling customer-centricity by calling forth the best from those that work in the organisation and the intelligent application of digital technologies. Subject matter expert with regards to customer strategy, customer insight, customer experience (CX), customer relationship management (CRM), and relationship marketing. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise (marketing, sales, service), and Technology.

8 thoughts on “What does it take to generate deep contextual customer insight?”

  1. Maz, the point “Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities” is a very interesting one.

    We automatically look for what is different and where we disagree rather than focusing n where the similarities are.

    Bizarrely, the similarities seem to be the largest group.



    1. Hello James

      Now that is an interesting assertion. I have not thought of it that way before with quite the force of your seeing. Do we automatically look for what is different and where we disagree rather than focus on similarities?

      It occurs to me that with our own kind (whoever that happens to be) we tend to minimise differences especially conflict is how it shows up for me. Why? Because we don’t want to face rejection nor ridicule. And it occurs to me that we do the opposite – focus on differences – with those who do not show up as ‘our kind’. In particular, we label, reject, ridicule and exclude those who differ from us.

      Now it may be that this is not how you show up in the world. It certainly is my automatic way of being/showing up in the world. And in line with my experience of how people I have worked with show up and behave.

      What do you say?



  2. HI Maz,
    I, for one, think that more immersion in our customers lives would lead to better insight, understanding and empathy. The challenge for many a business leader is that they would look to their market research people or their marketers to help organise this. However, many in these communities, including the VoC and survey community, would dismiss this type of insight work as not a ‘good’ methodology.



  3. Hello Adrian

    As a strategist the ‘fit-for-purpose’ of any strategy that I develop is only as good as the depth of contextual insight into the lives of customers. And mostly, what is already there shows up as not useful. The mirage of insight being mistaken for genuine insight.

    Why is this so? Because this task is left to the market research folks. And in some organisations to the VoC folks. The foundations of market research, as I understand them, were to support/propel the function of advertising. That is to say insight to generate the right stimuli to play upon the instinctual drives – hopes and fears that go with being human. The next development was simply to get access to people’s views and intention – the Gallup school of polling voters to get access to opinions and voting intentions. VoC is thus a variant of this Gallup type research.

    What is missing is the human-centred contextual insight into the lives of customers: what they care about, what they are concerned with, how they show up in life, what they do, who they do it with, what they use to do what they do, what they talk about…… Put differently, neither market research nor VoC gets you access to the experience of being a customer nor a tramp – aka George Orwell dressing up and living as a tramp to get access to the being/living of tramps.

    In the course of a strategy engagement I was delighted to learn that an NPS VoC programme was in place. My delight turned to disappointment when I looked at the reports. The answers that I was after – what matters to customers, their context, their experiences – were simply not there as a totality. Often, I have found my own experience of ‘becoming a customer and walking the path’ as generating more useful insight than any market research or VoC report.

    As for your point on methodology. It occurs to me that there is a lot of truth in this in the sense that there is an addiction to scientific process and rationality. And so inventing/defending a ‘scientific methodology’ is more important to getting access to ‘truth’ – that which truly matters. Yet, this is not the fundamental cause of what is so. The cause lies in high status people not wanting to get their hands dirty. Put differently, it is easier to read a report on poverty than it is to be poor, say for six months – to live as the poor live, where the poor live. Here is an article that points that out clearly:


    Here we have a transport secretary being forced, eventually, to take a train to work rather than use a chauffeur driven car to take him everywhere. The point is that this person was forced to face the reality of the transport experience. He, himself, did everything to not experience it, to maintain his privilege, his comfort. It occurs to me that he discloses what is so for just about every executive in every company. Which is why the customer, customer service, the customer experience as simply idle words, empty talk, the latest shiny object.



    1. Hi Maz,
      I agree. However, I would suggest that it’s not just the ‘high status people’ who don’t like to get their hands dirty and that this type of attitude can be endemic at all levels of some organisations.



      1. Hello Adrian
        I find myself to be in agreement with you. Many thanks for pointing out that this is an issue for just about everyone in large organisations.



  4. Excellent post Maz! Inspiring! I have been writing, as you are, on the critical importance of compassion — what Free Lee in his book “If Disney Ran Your Hospital” describes as the missing ingredient in hospitals to improve the patient experience. Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing.


    1. Hello Doug
      I thank you for taking the time to share your perspective. It occurs to me that you and I are fruits of the same tree – we care, we value people, we value relationships. Empathy matters – it is that which makes us the most human. It is that which allows us to work together and accomplish the most amazing stuff. And the basis of empathy is our ability to get into the state of the other – suffer or celebrate. We call it compassion – “suffering together” from the ancient Greek.

      As for Free Lee and his book, I thank you for bringing this to my attention.

      What is there for me to say? Yes, it occurs to me that love is present here, in my heart, for you and what you are about. I wish you every success. I am clear that you are great and being great. I am delighted that our paths have crossed and that we are in communication. Take great care of yourself whilst you are taking care of others.



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