MT Round-table: Knowing your customer

In tough times, all businesses should take a long hard look at who their clients are, what makes them choose their products and services, and how they could be persuaded to buy more. How can companies capture essential knowledge about their customers - and translate it into business growth?

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Ian Wylie, MT: Let's begin by establishing what you believe is a good definition of customer insight - and is that something your employees would understand if we were to talk about it?

Nick Bonney, Everything Everywhere: For me, it's about getting a genuine understanding of the customer into the business. If you are a small start-up, you have a genuine understanding of who your customers are. But in a big organisation such as ours - 18,000 staff, 27 million customers - my role is about trying to get the customer back in the room and making people in our organisations feel they have a genuine connection with what the customer is looking for. In the technology sector we're in, there is a tendency to be product-led, so I try to flip that on its head and say: 'Actually, let's think about what the customer wants.'

Andrew Gammage, Whitbread: I agree that it's about getting the understanding of the customer into the boardroom. The important thing for me is knowing who your customers are, your real target customers, and what is important to them - then translating that into actionable activity. We have lots of data on customers; but how do you draw together the different data streams and understand what the golden nuggets are? What are the little but key things you can do to unlock business opportunities and improve guest or customer satisfaction?

Laura Chaibi, Yahoo: Often, the role includes telling your business stakeholders what they do not necessarily want to hear, which is part of the job of the researcher, along with being the champion of the consumer.

Ian Wylie: What has been the recent history of this customer insight discipline?

Nick Bonney: I think we have evolved from when the classic, old school research discipline sat in one part of the business, the customer relationship management team sat in another, and somebody else looked at strategy. Over the past few years, those people have been brought together. The old school customer research team would previously have viewed itself as being an internal supplier and would not have challenged the brief. But today research is much more about influencing senior people in the business. And, for example, we now lean much more heavily on external suppliers to do data crunching for us. We deal more with the 'so what?' than re-crunching data.

Andrew Gammage: The way I describe it to new people in our organisation is that we are like the finance department, but for the guest. So the finance team produces a P&L (profit and loss) report, which tells us the health of the business from a financial perspective. We produce a P&L that tells us the health of the business from a guest perspective. So we know what we promise our guests, we measure what we promise our guests, then we report on a monthly basis. We are bringing the same disciplines that finance brings, but from a guest perspective.

Ian Wylie: In a smaller organisation such as Dwell, Aamir, how do you go about getting customer insights?

Aamir Ahmad, Dwell: Because we are growing so fast and so busy doing stuff in the organisation, it is easy for everybody to get removed from what the customer actually wants to do. My job is to make sure that everybody in the organisation understands what the customer is about, whether it's somebody in the warehouse, a delivery driver or somebody in finance. In a big organisation it probably doesn't matter if the financial controller doesn't know who the customer is, but for us it's really important because it makes a difference to the decisions we make, about what gets challenged and what doesn't. We are a multichannel business so one of the things that is really important for us is capturing every transaction across all channels and making sure that we tie that together to one view of the customer. How are people buying; where are they buying; what do they buy first, then next?

Simon Hay, Dunnhumby: The challenge for big retail is to operate in that way - because when a finance director doesn't know about the customer's needs or aspirations, it becomes dangerous for an organisation. Big organisations need to re-engineer themselves to be bigger versions of what you are.

Laura Chaibi: I would have to agree. Yahoo has about 600 million customers worldwide and it is a very data-driven company. So my role is to make sure that there is a balance between what we can see in the data and what our customers say. Often, we are bringing the consumer voice back into the picture.

Fred Warren, Microsoft: At Microsoft we take a multidisciplinary approach to understanding customers that includes people such as ethnographers and social scientists. We try and balance that against what the technology is, and against what the business needs are. It's at the point of convergence between qualitative and quantitative research that you get the light bulb moment.

Fouad Qeblawi, 1508 London: Customer insight for me was where our business started. Much of interior design is about the personality of the designer. It's very much: 'Look at me, I'm great. I can come up with these things.' But our research showed that most people who had gone through the process of having an interior designer came out the other end unhappy. And, when we looked at the reasons why, it was because there was a big gap between what interior designers thought they were offering and what clients thought they were getting. So we looked to get a lot closer to our clients and build trust with them. Rather than view it as just an interior design project, why not look at the whole lifecycle of the project and actually be there while they live in it?

We have maybe 30 to 35 customers at a time and we collect a lot of data about them. We know when their and their children's birthdays are. We know their dietary requirements, if the husband and wife like to go to the same toilet or have different ones, if they like to have the toothbrush holder on the right-hand side or the left-hand side. When clients visit us we already know what they want to drink. We get this information from interacting with them and also from their staff and the people close to them.

Brendan Cahill, Trinity Horne: Much of what we do is operationally based, so it is not necessarily customer facing. But it is probably using the same insight tools. And many of the big infrastructure businesses, which are the ones we operate in, are not touching the scale of the opportunity they have in terms of the data they are sitting on.

Andrew Gammage: Data can be quite faceless, so the trick is bringing the data to life with customers. So every six to eight weeks I will gather our senior executives in front of a focus group and get them to listen to what customers have to say, but make sure that the focus groups are based on what the data has been saying. I think that's also how you get back to being like a small business. I think it is important in a big business that no one loses sight of who the real customer is.

Ian Wylie: Are there any other examples of customer insight practices that actually work?

Simon Hay: Something really simple that I always talk about when I start dealing with organisations is separating what they know from what they believe. In an organisation many things get portrayed as fact, but when you start digging under the surface to the data and the research, you discover that it's more a case of: 'Actually, Dave told me ... Janet told me ... or the boss told me.' It is amazing how organisations can start heading down routes that are driven by favourite but incorrect assumptions.

Brendan Cahill: When we go into organisations, we find exactly what you have described in terms of the need to get rid of myths that have built up. So, early on, we identify experts within the organisation and embed them as part of our programme as we gather the data and do the analysis - so that they are intimate with it. When ultimately you go and present your findings you have people in the business who are informed and absolutely on side. That's how we get rid of the myths.

Nick Bonney: We have found over the past couple of years that more and more consumers are willing to engage with a brand that is asking for their feedback. That creates some opportunities to get some quite powerful understanding. We have been doing a lot more talking to consumers directly rather than commissioning big independent research projects.

Andrew Gammage: We run hotels and restaurants, so good old-fashioned customer satisfaction surveys work for us. They used to be on your pillow - but are now online. We survey around 200,000 guests a month and I'm getting a 33% response rate - that's how much people want to engage with the business. Listening to 70,000 customers a month gives us a great quantitative approach for validating the things we want to do in the business.

Fouad Qeblawi: One powerful area for us is social media. If you engage your customers on a social media platform you are able to have ongoing transparent conversations.

Laura Chaibi: Social media is good for instant feedback. But you need to be careful because it is very qualitative: sometimes your stakeholders can latch on to a few extreme statements and you need to bring them back to more of a normalised customer overview. That is where sometimes the research has to come in and temper the world of social media.

Andrew Gammage: For me, real insight comes from being multichannel. For example, Trip Advisor for us is really important. However, you have to look across the channels, whether it be complaints, guest satisfaction surveys or standalone research projects.

Simon Hay: It is both art and science. There are times when the statistical data is massively important, but there are times when the voice of the customer is also important. Knowing which bits you put out to the organisation, which bits you ignore, how it is going to be received and what impact it has on the decision-makers - it's a tough job.

Ian Wylie: Picking up that point about art and science, what kind of people are you recruiting into your businesses to help you translate the data into insight?

Laura Chaibi: The number one for me is people with good presentation skills, because presentation of research can make or break the delivery of a project, and the credibility of the researcher.

Aamir Ahmad: I'm looking for people who are prepared to listen to their customers rather than make statements about what they believe. Buyers find it easy to say: 'That is on trend, I want that,' rather than thinking, can I see that in our customer's house? It is quite easy in a design-led company to be arrogant; to be pulling the customer rather than responding. We do not want a business where people's egos override what customers want.

Ian Wylie: And what are the new and emerging technologies that are helping you capture the data, analyse it and communicate it?

Laura Chaibi: I've recently seen a camera that customers can wear around their neck so that you can see a day in their life. The advantage is that it is extremely contextual; the challenge is, it isn't scalable. The role of mobile is becoming stronger and there are going to be developments with slate devices and iPads.

Nick Bonney: Some 80% of devices sold currently are smartphones. The things that people are prepared to do on their mobile devices enable us to make that data gathering fun, rather than it feeling like a tedious questionnaire. It also enables us to give some benefit back to them in real time. We are only at the start of this: but gathering information is becoming a much more engaging process and puts the consumer and the brand on much more of a level footing.

Fouad Qeblawi: One of the challenges we have when we complete projects is the snagging. However hard you try, there are always going to be things that go wrong in the house. And it takes up a lot of time when a client calls and says: 'This does not work, can you come and have a look at it?' So we give our clients a Flip video camera - we call it a 'snag cam' - and we ask them for the first couple of weeks to take videos of all the little snags that they have spotted around the house. Then we can gather the information and send a plumber to go back to do a list of items. Clients love it. And the quicker we can identify the snags and deal with them, the more profitable our business is.

Fred Warren: We have done the same with software at Microsoft. Some of our developer tools allow people to record what is happening, and retain the context. One of our developers can look at something, trap it and recreate it so that others can understand what is happening.

Simon Hay: With all of this, we still need to process information and make decisions. We can get more data from more sources, but how do you pull all that together? You have got to make it into a story for the organisation - something that people can remember, can train for. For it to be valuable, insight has to change an action. Something has to change in the customer experience and we always have to remember that.

Andrew Gammage: There is also something about turning research into relationships. Historically, you would use surveys as independent and anonymous, and you would not talk to the customer. But more and more we are finding that we need to talk to customers, and if somebody is giving you a poor score you need to go back and engage with him. It is more than research: it is the start of a relationship.


  • Brendan Cahill, Chief executive officer, Trinity Horne
  • Andrew Gammage, Head of quality and guest insight, Whitbread
  • Laura Chaibi, Director of research and insight, EMEA, Yahoo
  • Simon Hay, Head of UK and Ireland, Dunnhumby
  • Nick Bonney, Market and customer insight director, Everything Everywhere (formerly Orange/T-Mobile)
  • Aamir Ahmad, Founder, Dwell
  • Ian Wylie, Chair and MT special projects editor
  • Fouad Qeblawi, Managing director, 1508 London
  • Fred Warren, Lead architect for financial services, Microsoft


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