Although I have spent a long time working with clients in the customer experience sector, I think it’s vital that we continually challenge the way we listen to and understand our customers.

Over the last few decades, as the power of the computer has increased and we can gather more and more data about customers, often without their knowing, we have become more seduced by numbers rather than words.

Of course, there are those that say the data tells the truth of customer behaviour and that what customers say to you can’t be relied upon to predict their spending or interactions. Maybe not, but if we do not listen to our customers and take the time to understand them, can we say we know what they need and want!

So why have we stopped listening? Well as I said earlier, I think many organisations find it easier to run the data through a process and come up with a score like NPS. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying NPS is bad, but I wonder if we are we becoming over-reliant on it?
So what’s the alternative? For the last few years, I have been thinking deeply about how we can return to a simpler time, when most organisations spoke with their customers on a regular basis and in doing so got to understand what they wanted and what they did not want. The problem is, of course, how can you speak to enough customers to understand, especially if you are a large organisation with millions interacting with you. That’s where Saturation & Grounded Theory can help. Never heard of it? Well this is what Wikipedia has to say about it:


The concept of saturation was first defined in the context of grounded theory as theoretical saturation. In qualitative research, the word saturation is extensively used almost interchangeably with data saturation, thematic saturation, theoretical saturation and conceptual saturation. Saturation can be simply defined as data satisfaction. It is when the researcher reaches a point where no new information is obtained from further data.

In other words when you stop finding anything new you have reached saturation. I have used this approach for many years now with a number of clients to look at what customer are saying, usually within verbatim feedback from surveys.

Of course, you may have thousands of verbatim feedback statements from your customers, however, if you use Saturation Theory, you will be amazed at how few statements you need to read before themes and issues start to appear.

It also avoids another common issue with a traditional analysis approach. The concept of statistical sampling is very useful, especially when undertaking analysis in many areas like medical trials. However, for something to be statistically valid on a sample of 1000 you would need 278 results that say the same thing. If we apply that to customers, would you ignore 270 customers out 1000 who were saying there was a problem with your product or service? Indeed, would you ignore 100, 50 or even just 10 people in a focus group?
Although it takes the experience to be able to only ‘listen’ to the customer rather than imposing your thinking into what the customer is saying, the results can be very enlightening. Rather than just have a score you end up with a rich picture of your customer’s thoughts and perceptions.

There are many ways to collect verbatim feedback from our customers, each one potentially gold dust. Social media provides an excellent opportunity to gather unprompted customer voices through products like Social Signals from Dam Digital, while audible feedback tools such as the one developed by Big Ears allow you to not only analysis the verbatim statement but hear the emotion of the customer as they speak.

It is true that this kind of customer understanding takes a bit more time and requires some experience and skill, but the quality and depth of understanding of your customers needs and wants is surely worth the effort.

Stephen is a published author of several books in the UK and US. He is a former senior manager at the world-famous John Lewis Partnership (JLP). It was here that Stephen gained much of his retail industry experience, progressing through training on the shop floor, to managing a department, to playing a vital role in the formation of its customer and e-commerce development.
His recent clients include Argos, NHS, ASDA, McDonalds, ITV to name but a few. Prior to his retail and consulting career, Stephen enjoyed a career in aviation, where he held both management and flying roles. Stephen is also a Fellow of the Institute of Consulting.
More on Customer Centricity at www.icustomer.co.uk
Stephen Hewett
Director, iCustomer Limited
Twitter: @srhewett
Mobile: +44 (0)7966 911707