Voice of Customer – Ethnography

Owais Mughal

Many years ago, one of my bosses mentored a novel practical lesson. In order to learn and solve customer issues our whole company was asked to visit a customer factory and spend time with the operators. The idea was to learn the users’ experience first hand. Even though our company was a small-size business, it was still quite an impressive sight to see a long procession of cars arriving at the customer site to learn and observe. And it goes without being said that customer was more than impressed (albeit a little bit overwhelmed) to see our dedication. The customer was very appreciative and willingly shared their daily work experience with us. This helped us in designing a product which sold very well with this customer and others like them.

Explaining Ethnographic Research

In simple words Ethnographic research means to conduct your research/voice of customer surveys on-site together with the customer, living in their shoes and feeling the joys and pains of their work. No other form of customer survey comes closer in understanding customers issues and thereby generating better product requirements than to actually ‘camp out’ at a customer site. I also find this type of VoC  is the closest method where both ‘product’ and ‘project‘ sides of the business come together. This as you can imagine leads to finding the best solution for a customer which ultimately leads to a better product design. I also want to go as far as by saying that better products are not designed by brainstorming in an office environment but by observing and ‘camping out’ with customers.

Who should conduct Ethnographic Research

While I don’t suggest involving whole company to do VoC, you must ideally bring a cross-functional team to the job. At the very least there should be both marketing and engineering representation as these two functions are sometimes the most divergent in their views of the World. This is important so that both functions get to hear the unfiltered views of the customer. If your project/product development budget allows then service and operations should also be involved with VoC exercise.

Are there any disadvantages to Ethnographic Research?

Yes. It is time consuming and often expensive to conduct. The quality of information gained also depends on how keen is the sense of observation of people conducting the survey. This method also depends on the type of product under development e.g.while gathering information from commercial or industrial places may be easier, it may not easier to camp out in somebody’s bedroom or kitchen – though in one of my career experiences, we did just that. One of our customers was complaining daily on how bad the range of our consumer wireless product was. A few of my colleagues then actually camped out at this customers’ home and found out the reason of low wireless range was ‘metal mesh’ work done in the walls of the house. Once the root cause was determined beyond doubt, the solution came easier. My point here is that though painful and may be expensive, the ‘camping out’ or ethnographic survey provides the most powerful insight into customer problems and hence the best solution and product development.

Next time if you have a choice of choosing between several methods of VoC surveys, choose the Ethnographic option. You won’t be disappointed with the benefits you’ll gain in solving customers issues and better product requirements.

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