Why Are We So Afraid To Speak To Our Customers?

by Today's Eggspert

Last updated on September 14th, 2017

Often in business we get too bogged down by the numbers and forget the actual value of speaking with our customers and prospects. I’m not just talking about sending the quarterly customer satisfaction survey, I’m talking about undertaking full qualitative user testing and research to fully understand your customers.

Since 2003, businesses and organizations have been able to gauge customer feedback by utilizing services such as Net Promoter Score (NPS) or online review sites such as Feefo and Trustpilot. In the case of NPS, after a transaction, the customer is presented with a form whereby they indicate their level of satisfaction.

net promoter score qualaroo

This data is then used to determine whether the customer is a Detractor, Passive or Promoter. By subtracting the percentage of Detractors from the percentage of Promoters, a single number is achieved from 1-10: your Net Promoter Score. The higher the number, the more satisfied your customers are – in theory.

The issue is that business owners are often so focused on improving their Net Promoter Score (NPS) or their Trustpilot reviews that they forget about the basics of gathering tangible customer feedback. There are many measures that go beyond the capability of an NPS – however, despite a positive score, some businesses lose sight of their customer altogether. If a business undertakes qualitative research to truly understand their audience’s wants and needs, it gains valuable insight into marketing their product at the front end of the user journey.

So, with more analytics tools and online reports generating mountains of data to the modern marketer, have we lost the art of gathering insight about our customers, or are we just too afraid to know what they are truly thinking or feeling?

Marketing Tools vs. User Insight

I recently joined a webinar hosted by Userzoom – given to a mix of global businesses and agencies – regarding UX and single measures against KPIs. A poll was circulated asking the question, ‘How does your company gain user insight?’ The answer was remarkable.

Insight Poll

44% of people use analytics and UX tools which are great to measure performance against KPIs. Improving an NPS, online review score or collating results may well be an important business objective or tactic. But, this raises the question: how many actually speak to their customers to gain user insight? To truly understand the users’ perception, their experience and their needs, businesses need to take a more qualitative approach. These tools demonstrate to marketers the data flow of users through a website and the way they interact and engage with your digital assets. They’re great for understanding the ‘what’, but user insight can determine the ‘why’.

The Typical Mistakes of Data Collection via UX Tools

As we know, the sheer amount of tools available (and mountains of data available from them) means that there is a danger of over-engineering data insight. According to Callcredit in a sample of 151 senior UK marketers, 71% of marketers feel overwhelmed rather than empowered by the data available.

Typically, the mistakes of relying too much on data tools are:

  • Too much data – users get overwhelmed by too much data;
  • Not enough reliable data – the data isn’t credible or contradicts other sources;
  • Limited resource to analyze the data – the data is coming from multiple sources and needs to be integrated into a single location or format so it is actually usable;
  • Lack of context of the data – the numbers stack up but they make no sense because there’s no context from the user’s perspective.

The last point is poignant. As marketers, we have access to a vast ocean of data. But the data is meaningless without understanding its context. Understanding this and linking back to consumer insights is where it becomes truly tangible to the business.

That’s not to say UX tools aren’t useful; a lot of valuable data can be ascertained from tools such as Google Analytics, SEM Rush, Crazy Egg and more. We know that access to data isn’t the issue. Most organizations are great at collecting, scrutinizing and manipulating data from multiple sources. It would seem that, actually, it’s the translation to usable insight which is lagging.

The Curious Case of Blockbuster

In 2004, John Antioco’s media rental goliath employed 84,300 people worldwide and was valued at $5 billion. But, ultimately, the company did not see where the market was moving and filed for bankruptcy only six years later.

Greg Satell for Forbes writes that a huge part of Blockbuster’s revenue stream was charging its customer’s late fees. Blockbuster’s new competitor Netflix, meanwhile, did not annoy its customers with late fees and offered a subscription-based service instead. Customers quickly began to enjoy the new subscription service that was one flat-fee and they weren’t being penalized for using it. Through word-of-mouth and positive feedback, Netflix went from being laughed out of Blockbuster’s Texas board room in 2000 to its deadly rival.

In a desperate attempt to compete, Antioco copied Netflix and removed late fees altogether. This business decision was the beginning of the end for Blockbuster as we knew it.

Removing late fees completely wiped out the core of Blockbuster’s own revenue; if there were no late fees, then there would be no profit. Antioco simply did not understand the direction of the market and Blockbuster’s physical presence was beginning to falter. While Blockbuster clawed at the feet of online services, Netflix moved from strength-to-strength. A CEO’s ignorance of the emerging trend towards digital had decided the battle: Netflix won and so did its customers.

HMV Companies
The UK-based music retail giant HMV, photography technology company Kodak and home media rental chain Blockbuster.

Blockbuster and huge brands such as HMV and Kodak have all died out because they neglected the importance of gathering insight into changing markets, technological advances, and the behaviors of their competitors and their audiences. It’s clear: nobody is too big to fail.

The Marketing Funnel

The ‘funnel’ refers to the way a user flows through your website – from pay-per-click advertising through to making a positive interaction (e.g. a lead form or phone call). The right message at the right time to the right audience can have a far more significant impact on the end conversion than attempting to optimize the lower funnel areas.

By undertaking an insight-first approach, businesses are better informed to make decisions about the way a product should be marketed at the top of the funnel.

Marketing Funnel

At the top of the funnel marketers and business owners can truly understand the nuances and messaging that engages with your target audience and sparks an interest in your brand.

“Is There Any Value in Getting to Know The Audience?”

You need to understand your customer, not just your business function. Just like a copywriter should always have the end reader in mind, when you’re marketing a product you need to focus on a persona. By doing a little research into your specific customer personas and testing how they interact with your website (and websites of your competitors), you really can unearth significant value in your proposition.

In his 2003 book, Marketing Insights From A-Z, Philip Kotler notes, ‘A former CEO of Unilever said that if Unilever only knew what it knows, it would double its profits’. In other words, he believes that businesses often sit on rich information and don’t do enough to mine this data and extract fruitful insights.

User Research Relevance

Undertaking credible user research can determine key differentiators that make your brand stand out. This becomes apparent only when you truly understand what your audience wants and needs are. This level of insight, backed by your internal data, offers significant value to understanding your audience effectively.

Undertaking qualitative research can be done via:

  1. 1-2-1 customer interviews – speaking with your prospects and customers directly
  2. User testing – usability testing across you and your competitor websites can interrogate specific areas of concern or user actions to acquire real user feedback
  3. Persona mapping – having clearly identified portraits of your customers, understanding their buying habits, needs, wants, entertainment, hobbies and interests builds a picture to help your brand engage better with that audience segment

This is the first step in acquiring actionable insights. But you can only access these vital insights if you’re brave enough to speak with your audience!

Being Subjective is Risky Business

As a business owner, you’re likely to know your industry and certainly your product better than anyone else. Being subjective can help guide direction but try to avoid the pitfalls of subjectivity. Unless you speak with your prospects and customers to truly understand what their perceptions then you are potentially missing that final piece that can really improve your conversion potential.

An Example:

I recently worked with a digital agency who is looking to re-position itself to target the higher end market of enterprise level web builds.

A creative agency was employed to provide a range of propositional messages geared to attract the right type of customer. On the surface, the messages proposed were excellent, highly compelling and imaginative using lots of creative digital buzz words such as ‘transformation’ and ‘omnichannel’.

However, after conducting some persona research by speaking to the CTOs, CEOs and CMOs of the prospect organizations they want to target it became clear that the messaging was completely misguided.

The clients wanted re-assurance and guaranteed returns. These clients were done with being burnt by lengthy contracted web builds and wanted more governance over the financials of each project; they wanted confidence in deliverability from a prospect agency. Therefore, the messaging needed revising to suit the consumer’s needs.

Without this insight, the agency could’ve spent significant investment targeting clients with the wrong messaging.

Test and Learn

Undertaking user testing and research is not a one-stop shop. The needs of the audience change, market forces evolve, your competition is watching you just as much as you’re watching them. Therefore, you need to test and learn. Continuous improvement through credible research will ensure you stay ahead of the competition.

Most successful companies did not become successful by just sticking to their initial objective. The winners tested, evolved, gathered insight and used that process to inform their next step. Think about Google and Apple (and others like them) and how they evolved as tech start-ups.

Understanding Web Usability

In Steve Krug’s book ‘Don’t Make Me Think’, he provides a simple definition for usability:

It really just means making sure that something works well: that a person of average ability and experience can use the thing—whether it’s a website, a toaster, or a revolving door—for its intended purpose without getting hopelessly frustrated.

Don’t judge your customers. Instead, embrace their feedback fully. If you’re not already conducting research to understand their needs and wants before they transact with your business, then I strongly advocate that embracing feedback is something to focus on as part of your marketing strategy.

“How Do I Turn Feedback Into Actionable Insight?”

We’ve all done the process of mapping out the user journey with post it notes on the board, but how about we take it a step further to understand from a user perspective how to make the journey a better experience?

post it wall

Applying the findings from your web usability testing into your messaging, routes to market, personas, call scripts and product branding will enhance your product or service significantly.

So Why Are We Afraid to Talk Our Customers?

Over 50% marketers and business owners (Online Webinar by Userzoom) rely predominantly on analytics tools, yet 71% of marketers are overwhelmed by data and can’t match back to actionable insights (Callcredit). So how are many modern businesses focused on improving their consumer metric scores? Here are some thoughts about why businesses are sometimes afraid:

  • Fear of receiving negative feedback
  • Unsure of the value of collecting additional insight (the data speaks for itself)
  • Don’t know how, when or what to do to gather actionable consumer insight
  • Already did it once – surely the world hasn’t changed that much since then?

Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Speak to Your Customers

As a business owner or member of senior management, would you rather know there was a problem or not? Of course, if you value your customers and the opportunity to grow your business you’re going to want to know what it is they are thinking, feeling and needing.

Having a little faith. It’s far more beneficial than relying on subjective opinion. Your customers are your biggest asset: learn from them, understand their behavior and beliefs. It is far better to ‘try and fail, then fail to try’.

Ok, So Let’s Look at Some Objection Handling:

  • Some customers unsubscribe after receiving a consumer survey

Have they had a bad experience? It might be worth reviewing their order history or previous communications and/or contacting them directly to find out.

  • You receive some initial feedback from customers that don’t feel their opinions will make a difference

Consider adding to your marketing literature on a product or email communication some phrasing like ‘We listened to your feedback and we’ve made some changes’. Be proud of your process and your customers will appreciate the sentiment.

  • Your user testing highlights critical weaknesses in your website

This is easy: learn from this feedback and review your competitors. How do your competitors overcome the same challenges? Do your analytics back up this feedback? If so, fix the issues.

  • You’ve conducted a website audit, and your developers recommend re-building the website so it’s mobile first.

It’s going to be a considerable investment and unsure on the benefits – speak with your customers, understand their shopping habits on mobile devices, is it purely research or are they wanting to actively transact. Use the results to calculate a conversion uplift which in year 1 generates more income that the cost of the rebuild. No brainer.

  • Insight gathering is expensive.

Is it not more expensive to guess and get it wrong spending money on the wrong audience with the wrong proposition?


  • Your current tools are great, but only tell half the picture. To really maximise conversion you need to understand your audience at the top of the funnel
  • User insight and the data you gather should work together to measure against your KPI’s
  • Forget what you know or have learned, usability testing is not just a one stop project, you need to continuously improve through a test and learn approach
  • Remove subjectivity from your strategy, opinion and knowledge can help guide a decision but can also completely miss the mark, be open minded
  • NPS and online reviews are great, but consider the user before they even visit your website.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak to your customers, there is a wealth of untapped information which answers the ‘what is’ with the ‘why?’ You have a business already and you have customers, they bought from you for some reason. They’ll likely be more than happy to tell what improvements can be made
  • It’s likely significantly more expensive to the business to not undertake actionable consumer research than the research itself

About The Author: Chris Newnham is co-director at Insightful UX. His specialties include web audits, UX research and digital marketing strategy. For more information check-out our website here, InsightfulUX. On Twitter at: @chrisnewnham and @insightful_ux.

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