By Jonathan DeVito

Nearly a year ago, I was in a meeting with a multi-national food and beverage manufacturer and asked: “Why do we need to talk to people to develop a channel strategy? We’re a data driven organization”

The question caught me off guard. I’ve always thought the value of talking to people is self-evident. People comprise our employees, customers, channel partners, and many other essential parts of a businesses’s ecosystem.

Since that meeting, I’ve reflected on that manufacturer’s question. In the age of data, should businesses bother talking to people?

The short answer is yes, and probably as much as ever. Let’s take a look at why along with practical implications and tips.

 

Why should you talk to people?

Reason #1: Conversations generate deep insights into what’s happening on the ground and why.

Conversations and on-site research provide insights into what’s actually happening on the ground. They help us confirm or refute what we’re seeing in the numbers. This may sound like common sense, but many ideas look great on paper until you challenge their viability through hands-on interaction.

As an example, in the 1980s Proctor and Gamble relied extensively on survey research to understand customer needs surrounding Tide, a brand of detergent. The product’s cardboard packaging and ease of opening were consistently rated as excellent by consumers. However, after field research, it was discovered that consumers were using tools, such as nail files and screw drivers to open detergent boxes. It turned out that people were afraid of breaking their nails. Despite the high ratings, there was substantial room for product improvement.

The bottom line: numbers are important, but they don’t always tell the entire story.

 

Reason #2: Conversations help to challenge our assumptions.

When you talk to someone or spend time on-site, people provide you with stories and experiences. The expression that “you don’t know what you don’t know” holds true here. Data, surveys, or other structured instruments reflect what we choose to ask. In the case of social media, we are constrained by what people choose to tell us. When you engage people in real life, you pick up on information that you are either unaware of or that lies beneath the surface.

 

Reason#3: Stories help us reflect.

A study by Green Peak Partners, an organizational consulting firm, and Cornell University found that self-awareness is one of the most important predictors of CEO success. Two important parts of this are emotional intelligence and willingness to challenge assumptions. One of the things that numbers frequently do not supply is human-centered stories from the field. Stories help us bring self-awareness into the decision making equation: they enable us to step into the shoes of others, reflect on our assumptions, and take action.

 

How can you drive success through conversations?

Tip #1: Be ready to listen.

Talking and interacting with people can yield groundbreaking insights. However, you need to be ready to listen and take what you are hearing seriously. This point is closely aligned with Reason #3 above: hone your sense of self-awareness and be ready to challenge your assumptions with what you are hearing or observing. New findings should be viewed as opportunities, not impediments that need to be rationalized away.

 

Tip #2: Be consistent.

As with all elements of customer and product development research, consistency is key. In a McKinsey study conducted across North America and Europe, 80% of top-performing companies maintained close customer contact throughout product development lifecycles.

While it might seem cumbersome to maintain customer contact throughout the development of products or strategies, it doesn’t need to be. A vast amount of needs can be identified from a very small sample of interviews. In many cases, especially in b2b research, data from customer interviews becomes saturated relatively quickly. By saturated, I mean the point where most information is repeated. Bursts of as little as 10-15 interviews may be sufficient.

 

Tip #3: Look within:

Talking to people shouldn’t just be an outward facing activity. Businesses should talk to people inside of their organizations when seeking to understand their customers and assess their ability to execute. For example, sales reps often have tremendously valuable insights into customer experiences. They are also valuable for two other reasons: a)they are easily accessible (you don’t need to reach out to customers) and b) sometimes understanding the way a product is sold is just as important as product design. I’ve written a separate article on leveraging sales teams as a source of insights. You can access that article by clicking here.