What is customer closeness?

Whatever its purpose and however it operates, every organisation has customers. One of our specialisms is supporting businesses with customer relationships and customer experience programmes through clear insight. Depending on the client, their needs, and the scenario, we might refer to ‘customer closeness,’ or ‘the voice of the customer.’ But the objective is always to providing powerful insights into the customer relationship, and actionable recommendations for improvement. We’ve worked with a huge range of organisations to achieve these outcomes.

Let’s start by defining the customer. It might seem obvious that the ‘customer’ is the person buying your product or service – but it’s not as simple as that. In a B2B market, the customer might be the end user of your product or service. It could be your channel partners, brand owners, someone who takes your product to make something else – or it could be all of these!

We recently helped a specialist manufacturer to plan its innovation strategy for surgical materials. In this case, the customers were the manufacturers using the client’s products as components in surgical equipment, the hospital procurement departments purchasing from them, and the surgical teams using them in theatre.

So, we mustn’t take the term ‘customer’ too literally. There’s often a chain of people who determine what gets bought – and all of them are the customer, whether we talk about a customer closeness study, a Voice of the Customer programme, or something else.

And what about closeness?  This has more than one meaning too. Some client organisations use the term ‘customer closeness’ quite literally. For them, it means their internal teams having direct contact with the customer. This might be through observational approaches, accompanying the research team to interviews, or inviting customers to participate in internal meetings and workshops.

All of these can be really valuable, and we use them frequently. For example, we’ve involved internal stakeholders alongside our team to help a leading global brewer who needed to get really close to its target market. A few years ago, we brought O2 network engineers face to face with their customers like never before. And we often carry out workshops with clients to work through and start to embed and action findings, as soon as they’ve got those fresh insights.

But at Breaking Blue, we know customer closeness goes beyond bringing customers and stakeholders together. For us, it means anything that helps build understanding of how customers behave, what drives that, and how to make better business decisions as a result. Frequently in means calling in our in-house behavioural science team, Disrupt, to apply principles and techniques that further our knowledge.

In the consumer space, customer closeness means building rapport and affinity between the researcher and the customer, so that they’ll tell you about their thoughts and feelings in detail and open up to sharing personal information. Working with leading consumer healthcare players, for example, we’ve created an online space for women to discuss period-related healthcare and wellbeing needs and experiences, and with people just starting to suffer cold or flu symptoms to document their journey in real-time. Enabling and encouraging consumers to document situations and emotions through film resulted in intimate and personal portraits that broke fresh ground for both clients.

We’ve also delivered consumer research recently for a healthcare provider who needed to understand serious health issues among babies with specific allergies. Our team of researchers, anthropologists and behavioural scientists designed a programme of ethnographic in-home interviews with mums of children with a specific allergy, with the client team co-moderating alongside us. We collected insights that closed important gaps in the client’s understanding of the diagnosis and treatment journey, and the client is now building marketing strategy around the new understanding.

Customer closeness is key to running your own organisation well too – whether it’s more formal, perhaps through observations your customer-facing staff, or less formal, perhaps via social media listening or feedback. A business that listens to the voice of the customer will collect useful data about both their own business, and about how their customers’ needs are evolving. They’ll gather the insight and guidance that they need, to make important decisions on which products or services to develop, which to abandon, and how best to serve their customers.

A successful customer closeness programme helps organisations to achieve five things:

  • Understand the customer journey, and the critical touchpoints along the way. What does our client need to do, and when, to stay at the top of the top of the customer’s consideration set?
  • Determine the importance to the customer of different performance criteria and relationship aspects
  • Reveal how the client organisation is performing against those criteria: is it under-delivering or over-delivering on any key areas?
  • Show how the client’s performance compares to its competitors. Which weaknesses put it at risk? What actions will close the gap?
  • Give specific insight on new developments in this sector or category, and on the client’s business, brand or service

These are critical insights into the decision-making process: listening to the customer should be a vital component in making those decisions.


Understanding customer behaviour

Customer closeness means understanding who customers are, their needs and perceptions. But what we’re ultimately focusing on is what they do: their behaviour. We gather detailed understanding of how they use products or services, and how they decided to use or buy them. The skills we use in person to build rapport – smiling, eye contact, active listening – are underpinned by a strong theoretical backbone. We ensure this sound theoretical core by involving our in-house behavioural science team across all projects, guiding and challenging our thinking.

Ethnographic and broader anthropological approaches can be invaluable in defining customers’ real needs from those products and services, where the gaps are, and the opportunities for our clients. Observing what people do can tell us far more than we’d learn simply by asking them to describe what they do, and is often a crucial part of our design. It can be extremely valuable to interview and observe people in their homes: our groundbreaking research into the way families make financial decisions is just one example. We all know people are complicated. They often don’t do what they say they do, and they can’t or won’t always tell us what they think. Our researchers are trained not simply to repeat back what participants tell them, but always to use the full range of behavioural and anthropological techniques to ask themselves, ‘What’s really going on here?’

It’s a similar story in the store environment. For example, we’ve worked for several years with a well-known clothing and homeware retailer who operate in the US and Europe. When they needed practical recommendations for optimising a new flagship store environment, they came to us. Our solution was a programme of ‘on the ground’ research, carrying out detailed shopper observations, intercept interviews, and depth interviews with store designers and sales colleagues on the shop floor. The insights we provided have positively impacted customer experience, shopping behaviour and brand perceptions.

Biometric techniques, and eye tracking in particular, bring us close to shopper interactions with the store environment, in ways that shoppers simply can’t tell us about themselves. In one recent study for a well-known international grocery retailer, we designed a programme of accompanied shopping trips, covering numerous key stores and a wide range of shopper types. These shopping trips built in specific product missions, which we eye-tracked, in order to see the in-store experience through shoppers’ eyes. We delivered outputs including gaze plots and heat maps, demonstrating to the client for the first time how the POS was impacting the in-store experience.

True closeness is also vital when we’re working with clients to create behaviour change. A great example is our recent study for a healthcare client, who needed to understand smokers’ reasons for choosing and rejecting different NRT products during their quitting journey. All sorts of biases and different influences come into play in the smoking cessation journey, and consumers are likely to become even more irrational than usual! Here, we used a combination of customer closeness techniques, including diaries to map the journey, and reflections in a group setting, to really get up close and understand what was happening ‘in the moment’. We know that the better we understand behaviour, with all its quirks, biases and irrationalities, the better the answers and advice we’ll give to our client.

Ethnographic and observational techniques are just as valuable to customer closeness in a B2B context, as they are in consumer research.  While B2B purchasers like to believe that their decisions are wholly rational, this is not the case: as with all human behaviour, there are both rational and emotional influences on what we buy. The central role that behavioural science plays in all of our research means that we design all our studies to take into account the way the human mind works and how that can impact on the way we behave – whatever capacity we’re acting in.


A listening culture

Companies who invest in a customer closeness or Voice of the Customer programme are putting themselves in a strong position – but what really makes the difference is cultivating a listening culture within the organisation. There are many practices they can adopt, to create and maintain a thriving listening culture: rather than gather Net Promotor Scores and shut the door to bury oneself in the data, the key here is creating an open-door culture so that customers can tell you something whenever they want to.

When organisations focus on business improvement and strategy, there’s quite rightly a lot of focus on business systems, digitisation, running a lean operation and so on. Metrics like KPIs are critical in making business improvements: they help us understand what we need to do to work efficiently and profitably.

But there’s a risk of the business starting to focus so firmly on the KPI that it eclipses everything else. Allowing KPIs to dominate can lead to businesses operating with systems that are perfect on paper, but that in reality forget about or ignore what the customer wants and feels. In this scenario the business never thrives. On the contrary – things start to go downhill. Understanding the customer perspective is a critical component in effective strategy planning and execution.

A Voice of the Customer or customer closeness programme will always be helpful to understand customers better, there are particular scenarios when businesses will find them especially advantageous. For example, we work with a specialist manufacturer who provides high-performance materials to the food, construction materials, paper, textiles and adhesives markets. They were seeing a downturn in revenues and profitability – and were understandably keen to reverse these trends.

We’ve delivered many similar studies for clients who had experienced an increase in customer complaints, or who had noticed a drop-off in spend among key accounts. In these situations, we’ve designed customer research to help clients understand how to revive the business, how they can outperform competitors, and the specific areas where they need to improve. Similarly, when clients come to us because they’re experiencing slow growth, we carry out customer research to identify and assess new growth opportunities.

Another important time for customer closeness research is ahead of potential disruption, like business reorganisation. We’ve worked with all the UK’s major train operating companies, including on studies help them understand the customer experience during service disruptions, for example. In this context, getting close to customers is hugely important. We were able to give our client practical tools and actions on how to communicate with its service users during challenging and difficult times.

In addition to these activities, many businesses have ongoing processes for gathering customer feedback at key touchpoints. While this is a great idea in principle, in practice it may not deliver if the feedback gathered is too superficial, or doesn’t allow customers to comment on what really matters to them. Actively listening to customers at the right point in time ensures they feel valued, promoting stronger relationships and trust. When designing questions, we don’t just think about our client’s metrics: we put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and ask ourselves: what do they want to tell us, and how do we get them to open up?

Our work with a private sector provider to monitor satisfaction with the health screening services they deliver on behalf of the NHS is one example. In addition to measuring the patient and carer experience, our research programme gathers feedback from UK GP practices that deliver these consumer health screening services. We issue a self-completion survey to patients at the time of their screening: it’s essential to capture their feedback as close in time to the experience as possible. We also invite GP practices to give their feedback via a web survey, using a number of behavioural science principles to maximize the response rate and gain the buy-in of this heavily-researched audience.

Getting customer feedback can also make the client’s own team feel valued. Of course, some might want to give negative feedback or complain! But the wider practice of a listening approach means organisations can capture positive feedback and stories that help them celebrate success. At Breaking Blue we interview our clients to probe them on what went well and less well while working with us: as well as creating opportunities to refine our processes, this also often provides us with success stories that help motivate us all and bond us with both our colleagues and clients.

The ability to achieve customer closeness and access Voice of the Customer insight is all around you: anyone in a customer-facing position can do it. Throughout most businesses are people who are involved with customers at critical touchpoints. Depending on the organisation these may be sales people, customer support, technical support, supply chain, production, R&D, or something else. They get to hear what customers want and observe how they behave – all our clients need to do, is to make sure they gather this insight. We have helped clients like Tesco do so on many occasions – for example, using ideas from colleagues on the ground to suggest improvements to training.


The external perspective

Commissioning a programme of customer closeness research has several big advantages over gathering insights informally and ad hoc.

It’s easy to give in to our own biases and assume the views we form ourselves are the solid, singular truth. We’ve found on many occasions that an outside view can challenge and overturn internal assumptions.

  • A specialist agency will bring an external perspective and objective starting point. Even organisations with a thriving listening culture can find this invaluable. While informal feedback is real-time, it is also self-selecting: you risk hearing only what customers with a strong opinion have to say, what your team members are willing to hear, and what they feel safe to communicate back to the business
  • Working with an agency enables businesses to approach the whole customer base simultaneously without bringing their team to a standstill – resulting in more robust data
  • Taking a structured approach means the business gets feedback on all the issues that are important to it; not only those things that customers want to talk about.
  • The business controls the timing, and can schedule the research learnings to feed into its planning cycles

So, getting an independent view of the way a business is serving its customers is good practice once in a while. New customer concerns can arise at any time – as our work on the evolving meaning of sustainability illustrates.


Customer loyalty

The objective of customer closeness programmes, however they’re carried out, is to impact on customer behaviour. The organisation in question wants its customer to carry on buying its product, using its service, perhaps increase spend, or think more positively about what they’re experiencing.

All of this is often summed up in the term ‘customer loyalty,’ but it’s important to remember that ‘loyalty’ can mean two different things. Clients often come to us wanting to achieve loyal behaviour. But it’s important to think about emotional loyalty too: a feeling of attachment towards a company. We can confuse ‘loyalty’ (actively choosing a brand again and again) for inertia (passively continuing to buy the same thing, without thinking about it!) It’s important to tease out that genuine loyalty from more superficial behaviours borne out of inertia, the sunk cost fallacy, or other biases.

It’s not surprising that loyal behaviour and emotional loyalty are related – but they’re not exactly the same thing, either. For instance, customers who don’t feel particularly loyal to a brand or company often keep using them through inertia. In contrast, customers who do feel loyal to a company might switch to a competitor if they see a more compelling offer or when the brand they’re loyal to disappoints them. When clients want to influence or measure customer loyalty, we help them to think about exactly what that means.

Another concept to mention here is customer satisfaction. For many years companies have carried out tracking studies to measure how satisfied customers are with a product or service. These days, customer satisfaction is used as a key metric less commonly. That’s partly because, as we’ve explained, people can say they’re satisfied with something, but switch to a competitor anyway. But in addition, customer satisfaction looks more at the customer’s functional, rational experience, than it does at their emotional experience. As a result, lots of organisations now measure ‘closeness,’ and ask customers to express how close they feel to a company or brand.

These days, the Net Promoter Score (NPS) has largely taken over as the main predictive measure of customer behaviour. No discussion of customer closeness or Voice of the Customer research would be complete without it!

Net Promoter Score is based on asking customers, “How likely is it that you would recommend our company/ product/ service to a friend or colleague?”  They answer using a 0 to 10 scale, where 0 means “Definitely would recommend” and 10 means “Definitely would not recommend”. We subtract the percentage of lowest scores (detractors) from the percentage of highest scores (promoters), to give the NPS or Net Promoter Score. The NPS can be anything between minus 100 and plus 100.

The Net Promoter Score is a popular metric and certainly has its uses, but it needs context in order to be really useful. Suppose a company takes an NPS measurement for one of its brands and finds that its score is minus 42. What does that mean: are its customers unhappy and likely to recommend a competitor brand instead? Or are they just unlikely to recommend the brand? If they are unhappy, what should the brand owner do about that? It’s also important to set NPS in the industry context: we hate to break it to our insurance clients, but your customers are never going to rave about you to their friends! Rather than panic on receiving a negative score here, it’s better to compare to how your competitors scored.

So while NPS is a useful metric, it doesn’t give you the whole picture. Many organisations have NPS embedded in their systems as a KPI, and we certainly don’t think it should be ignored or discontinued. But we always recommend to clients that they pack other components around the score. These might include:

  • Asking why the customer gave the score they did
  • Asking about the importance of different customer touchpoints
  • Focussing on the customer’s future needs

All of these questions can allow that essential context to help interpret the NPS, and understand why the score has the value it does, and why it is changing, or not!


Not all customers are the same

For certain organisations, and especially those in the public sector, transport and utilities, industry regulation means the client must take extra steps to ensure inclusivity. This can mean, for example, making sure that customers with accessibility issues are included within our research, as we did for example with a leading London cultural institution. We are well equipped to meet the challenges of engaging vulnerable audiences in customer closeness programmes, and we have done so in both the energy and transport sectors.

Most organisations have a very diverse customer base, with varying needs. It can be difficult, in this scenario, to achieve real customer closeness, without building a more formal, detailed understanding of that diversity of needs. This is the sort of situation in which we recommend a customer segmentation programme. Customer segmentation allows us to identify discrete groups of customers with similar needs, behaviours and attitudes, and to recommend what each group needs from you.

For example, in a research study for the RNLI we identified groups of kayakers and canoeists who were most likely to put themselves at risk on the water. The client team was able to craft messages targeted to these high-risk segments, as part of their prominent national safety campaign.

Other organisations want to use customer segmentation to identify and target segments that offer the greater potential value. We’ve helped many brands in tech, health, finance and culture do this: creating, refreshing, embedding, personifying and deep-diving into customer segmentations are all challenges that we regularly address on clients’ behalf.


Delivering customer closeness research in the right way: rolling the DICE.

Our view is that there are four important DICE components in delivering successful customer closeness research: Direction, Insight, Customer-centricity, and Expertise.

Direction is key to delivering return on investment, as well as insight. We want to deliver a programme that’s embedded in the client organisation, with everyone involved buying into the learnings. To achieve this, stewardship is essential and we work with our immediate contacts to appoint a cross-functional team (which could involve any combination of sales, marketing, R&D, production, tech support, supply chain, finance, customer service, and QC). We help our clientside research lead to gather and build in their hypotheses and questions to the research design, and to the way we share learnings.

This was one of the aspects that worked particularly well when we worked with a high-performance materials company to assess the customer experience of a key customer sector. We worked with the senior management team to develop a strategic action plan for growth. We set short, medium and long-term goals, identifying implications from the research for sales and customer service, supply chain and R&D.

Insight. We design customer closeness programmes to deliver not just metrics, but also diagnostics. For example, we tell clients not just how they’re perceived, but what causes that perception, and what they need to do to change that perception. We know not to take customers’ responses too literally: our experience allows us to listen to them, understand what they want and why, and determine the risks and opportunities. We then work closely with the client team in deciding the extent to which they want to deliver the things the customer is asking for.

Customer-centricity has two facets. Firstly, there’s the way we approach the customer. We build this around their importance to the client, and around key behavioural science principles, which we leverage to encourage co-operation. Based on the specific circumstances, we’ll collaborate with our client to agree on the best way to handle recruitment, anonymity, the incentive we offer, the language we’ll interview them in.

Secondly, there’s the customer experience of the interview. Whatever form it takes, we design the interview experience an enjoyable one, asking questions in an engaging way and covering topics they will genuinely be interested in discussing.

Expertise means knowing how to access customers, how to engage them effectively, what questions to ask, and how to analyse and interpret their feedback objectively. This is where the experience that Breaking Blue offers can add true value. We bring years of experience in customer closeness and Voice of the Customer research. We also apply the latest thinking in behavioural science and data analytics

We focus on delivering detailed insight because that’s what drives actions in our clients’ businesses, to deliver effectively and make a real difference. Very often, driving those actions will involve using interactive methods such as workshopping, rather than a standard debrief. Done correctly, a professional customer closeness programme can transform the way organisations view their customers and their business.