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.

 

Why Innovation Is Rare: The Problem of Knowledge & The Curse Of Expertise

Do We Know It All?

I’d like to start this conversation by getting us mindful to a definition:

ignorance

ˈɪgn(ə)r(ə)ns/

noun

lack of knowledge or information.

“he acted in ignorance of basic procedures”

I say that our ignorance is vast.  And we are not present to our ignorance because we are convinced that we have an accurate grasp of the world: we know it all!  Our hubris blinds us that which history makes vividly clear: each age is deluded in its conviction that it has accessed the truth of what is so.  Does this remind you of Socrates? The Oracle claimed that Socrates was the wisest man because he knew that he knew nothing.  On that basis we are not wise – nowhere near close to wise.

Do You Remember This Starbucks/’Milk’ Story?

Why have I launched into this conversation?  If you read this blog then you may remember this post and this narrative:

Last week, while on an average holiday shopping trip, my mother and I decided to stop by Starbucks to get a quick snack…..

When we got up to the counter, my mother placed our simple order, at which point she asked for a “tall” cup of two percent white milk. This is how the conversation played out:

“Mocha,” said the barista.

“No. Milk,” my mother repeated.

“Mocha?”

“No. Two percent white milk.”

“Oh… Milk!”

….. I attempted to withhold my personal thoughts. Milk. You know, that white stuff you pour in the coffee? Yes, well, we want an entire cup full of that. Minus the coffee, of course.

Our barista proceeded to ask if we’d like the milk steamed, but we opted for cold. (They steamed it anyway.) Eventually, we managed to get our order straightened out, but not without a few stifled giggles.

Making Sense Of This Story Through The Insights of Heidegger & Wittgenstein

You may also remember the follow up post where I made use of the insights of Heidegger & Wittgenstein. And in so doing attempted to point out that:

  • every human being is always a being-in-the-world  – which is to say that the human being and the world are so interwoven that they are one not two;
  • every human being finds himself, at every moment, situated-embedded in a particular world e.g. the business world, the academic world, the public world, the world of home etc and that world ‘takes over’ the human beings working-living in that world;
  • a word such as ‘milk’ does not point at a specific object rather it, and every word-utterance, is a social tool for coordinating social action in a specific world – think for a moment what ‘milk’ means to a woman that has just given birth and compare that to what ‘milk’ means to a supermarket;
  • that the confusion that occurred at Starbucks and with the barista was due to the narrator’s mother turning up in the Starbucks world of coffee and using the word ‘milk’ inappropriately – akin to you turning up at your friend’s home for a meal, enjoying the meal and then asking for the bill; and
  • to really understand a world (e.g. the advertising world) one needs to live in that world by taking up a role in that world and doing that which goes with the role taken up.

After reading this follow up post, Adrian Swinscoe commented (bolding is my work):

I really like your exploration of this issue from a philosophical angle and learnt a lot from it…. 

However, at the end of the post I found myself wondering if the heart of the problem was something quite humdrum and that the barista just didn’t listen. She obviously heard something but didn’t properly listen for whatever reason….fatigue, lack of care, language, bias, agenda etc etc.

As you point out, if we don’t get out of our way and our own ‘heads’ then we’ll struggle to understand and really help and serve others.

Now I want to address the points that Adrian is making. And that means grappling with the problem of knowledge and the curse of expertise.  Let’s start with Adrian’s statement “if we don’t get out of our own way and our own ‘heads’ then we’ll struggle to understand and really help and serve others.”

Is It Possible To Get Out Of Our ‘Heads’?

If I was to get out of my own ‘head’ then whose ‘head’ would I use to be able to make sense of the world in which I find myself? Besides we are almost never in our heads, we are mostly on automatic pilot immersed in cultural practices and taken over by our habits.  If this was not the case then thinking, genuine thinking, would not be so effortful for us.  Let’s listen to Charles Guignon:

If all our practices take place within a horizon of vague and inexplicit everyday understanding , then even the possibility of something obtruding as intelligible is determined in advance by this understanding …….. the questions that I can ask and the kind of answers that would make sense are always guided by my attuned understanding of “ordinary” interpretations …. Without this understanding, nothing could strike me as familiar or strange.

For this reason Heidegger says that all explanation presupposes understanding…… The legitimate task of seeking explanations is always conducting within a horizon of understanding that guides our questioning and establishes procedures for attaining clarity and elucidation. Through our mastery of the shared language of the Anyone, we have developed specific habits and expectations that enable us to see things as obvious or puzzling...

A detective trying to make sense of how a crime was committed …. might take even the most mundane item in the room and ask how it came to be there ….. great advances have come about in the sciences through the ability of individuals to step back and question what had been taken as obvious and self-evident. But such cases of departing from established habits and expectations make sense only against a background of shared understanding which remains constant through such shifts. In other words, we can make sense of unintelligibility and a demand for explanation only within a horizon of intelligibility which is not itself thrown into question …..

– Charles B. Guignon, Heidegger and the Problem of Knowledge

To sum up we are always in our ‘head’ and that head arises and is kept in existence through our shared cultural practices. A particular potent cultural practices is language.  Notice that to operate in society we must speak the language of that society – everyday language.  And to operate in particular world (e.g. world of business, world of finance, world of advertising, world of healthcare ….) we must be fluent in the language of that world.

Adjustments can be made to our ‘head’ and it is not easy to make these adjustments. Why?  Adjustments are not made through thinking – not made through cognitive means.  As ‘head’ is given by roles, habits and cultural practices it is necessary to make a shift in these. How? By moving into and inhabiting-living new worlds. This is what occurs when the CEO leaves the world of the CEO and takes on-lives the role of the frontline employee for five days; Undercover Boss is all about this shift.  If you find yourself interested in that which I am speaking about here then I recommend watching the movie The Doctor (starring William Hurt) – it is instructive in a way that my words cannot instruct.

The Curse Of Expertise

How does Adrian interpret the Starbucks/’Milk’ story?  The same way that many of us interpret it:

She obviously heard something but didn’t properly listen for whatever reason….fatigue, lack of care, language, bias, agenda etc etc.

Why this conviction that ‘that which occurred’ is the fault of the barista? Why this insistence on the incompetence of the barista?  I say that this explanation is so easily forthcoming and attracting (rather like a magnet) because it is the cultural practice to see fault in front line staff, especially as these jobs are low paid, and thus lay blame on them.

What if the barista was not fatigued, not tired, speaks the language well, has no agenda?  What if, on the contrary, the barista is highly skilled in her role of serving coffee to Starbucks customers?  Is it possible expertise, not ignorance, is the cause of the snafus?  Let’s listen to a zen master and see what we can learn:

In Japan we have the phrase “shoshin” which means “beginner’s mind”. The goal of practice is to always keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose your recite the Prajna Paramitra Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it….

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

The curse of expertise is that the expert only sees that which s/he has been conditioned to see; hears that which s/he has been conditioned to listen to; makes sense of that which shows up through her already given horizon of understanding (see Guignon above). Put differently, the expert is stuck in a rut: all that shows up, including the anomaly, is interpreted in times of the taken for granted.  Which is why altruistic acts are made sense of in terms of selfishness given the Darwinian frame. Or the necessity to postulate ‘dark matter’ given the need to keep the existing model of the universe intact. Or the collapsing of Customer Experience with Customer Service in the business world.  Or the insistence of seeing CRM as technology and business process change rather than a fundamental change in the ‘way we do things around here’.

As a consultant/coach/facilitator what do I bring to the table?  At my best I bring to the table a beginner’s mind where everyone on the ‘inside’ is an expert. Which is why I am often able to see that which my clients cannot see.  The challenge always is to convey that which I have seen to my clients such that they do not reinterpret it into their existing way of seeing-doing things.  Often I fail: despite my best efforts to ‘ask for milk’ I find that my clients interpret as ‘mocha’.  And when I say “No, milk!”, they respond “Surely, you are asking for Mocha!”.  And even if I strike up the courage to insist that ‘milk’ is not the same as ‘Mocha’ I find that they often confuse ‘Two percent white milk” with ‘steamed milk’.  They are not at fault, it is the curse of expertise. And it inflicts us all!

And Finally A Quote

I leave you with a quote that sums up the situation and the challenge beautifully:

Create your future from your future not your past.

– Werner Erhard