Volume 11, 
August, 2013


Go Deep, Find Treasure
When it comes to understanding customers, brevity is overrated


Sheila Mello

In the right hands, brevity can convey deep meaning. (Consider the famous six-word story attributed to Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) These days, though, much of our social and business discourse is more like froth on the surface of the ocean than brief bits of wisdom. 

Evidence abounds of the surface nature of our communication—take Twitter’s 140-character limit and the trend toward shorter books. I’m not saying these are bad in and of themselves. It’s just that those of us whose jobs involve getting to know customers need to go deep

An “inch-wide, mile-deep” approach allows you to discover things you couldn’t learn in 140 characters or 50 pages. Your deep dive will yield insights that help you better match your offerings to what customers find valuable.

Here are some ideas for bringing depth to your voice-of-the-customer and product definition work.

Get management on board. Going deep requires time, and time is money. It’s easy to dismiss in-person, contextual interviews as an unnecessary luxury when budgets are tight. In fact, that’s when you need them most—and you need the backing of the folks who sign the checks. 

Work outside your department. A cross-functional team might seem like just more skimming the surface. In fact, it’s the opposite. Putting representatives from development, marketing, quality assurance, manufacturing, and customer service in direct contact with customers in a structured setting yields layers of perspective you couldn’t get from one discipline alone—and increases motivation and team harmony to boot.

Create a structured interview process that focuses on listening. We all like having conversations with customers, but a conversation is a two-way information exchange that can skim the surface as it shifts from topic to topic. By contrast, a structured interview takes a subject below the surface with the use of probing questions, follow-up probing questions… and then more questions. The interviewer maintains a laser-like focus on the topic at hand and doesn’t share his or her own perspective.

Don’t fear the deep. The broad, shallow sea of chatter around us too often concerns familiar products and services customers already use. Your structured interview process should inquire about problems, not products. Talking about problems naturally pushes us outside our comfort zone. Depth—and a little discomfort—is required to uncover problems people aren’t talking about yet.

The vast ocean of communication we all float on these days has its place. It can spark ideas for interesting research or point to problem areas to address. But when it comes to understanding a customer problem well enough to solve it, there’s no substitute for deep investigation.

Going deep can be scary, but it’s where the treasure lies.

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