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The Convenient Lie Of Customer Lying

Last week, Alessandro Di Fiore wrote a blogpost at HBR that provoked some pretty strong reactions from me called How to Get Past Your Customers’ Lies.

First, I don’t believe customers “lie.” When we believe they’re “lying” to us, it immediately puts a negative lens on the customer and their experience. Try this little thought experiment: the next time your significant other (or kid, boss, etc.) says something to you, immediately plant it in your mind that they’re lying or not telling you the whole truth. Makes a big difference in how you treat these relationships, doesn’t it? So what makes us think we can do anything different with a customer? How about if we practice some empathy for our customers instead? Our customers may hide things from us or simply not know how to clearly articulate the needs, frustrations, ideas, and convenient work-arounds that play out in their daily experience. They need help and it’s what a trained anthropologist with experience in fieldwork can do.

He suggests that eight to ten participant observations are enough to gather necessary data for decision-making. Field observation in business settings can be time, labor, and money intensive activities. But if we’re going to condense the ethnography, then every single interaction and experience counts. Nothing can be wasted. Field observation isn’t just an academic exercise, it’s purpose is to drive better business and product results. If the whole process – research design, data gathering, and analysis – takes months to complete, that’s critical time lost. Business anthropologists know how to conduct what’s known as rapid ethnography to complete the process not in months, but in weeks.

Finally, the process of getting market feedback and customer ideas in the field is not the sole domain of the C-level suite. As a matter of fact, I’d argue they are the least best option. You have to know how to observe the right things and ask the right questions. You also have to know how to see what’s not there and listen for what’s not actually said. Too many times, CEOS and other executives are too tied to their prior strategies and decisions. They become blinded to what they want to see. And they’re not trained to explore the nuances of things which is often where true discovery happens.

Trust me, a good business anthropologist is going to be able to filter all of this with the necessary focus on business, strategy, and people. It’s this – along with our needed objectivity – that makes us the ideal partner.

Photo credit: discoodoni via Flickr

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