Customer insight reports are meaningless

Photo by All Bong on Unsplash

Discovery Channel

While studying at Aalto, I took part in a program that hosted a bunch of exchange students from near and far (good times!), and during our opening weekend we spent two days at a cottage in Nuuksio national park. It was mid-September, and the nights were already dark. Nevertheless, it was a warm evening (on Finnish standards) and we spent time at the terrace of the cottage, getting to know each other and our various backgrounds.

At some point we noticed that a fellow student from Hong Kong kept glancing anxiously towards the empty darkness that had been a beautiful Finnish forest a few hours before. After some friendly queries it turned out that she had never been out of a city (and its constant lights) and all of her contacts with nature had been through documentaries on Discovery Channel or National Geographic. It took some time to convince her that even though there might be bears or wolves roaming free in the national park, they wouldn’t come anywhere near us.

Customer insight reports are meaningless…

During my career I’ve read (and written some, I’ll admit) dozens of customer insight reports: in the form of segments, personas, profiles — you name it. Most of them are long, dull and papery (one of the worst I’ve seen was some 150 slides long about ~10 different segments, with numbers after numbers after numbers — and 2–3 inspirational pictures, of course). And more often than once I’ve been left wondering if these reports are of any worth to the decision-makers they ought to serve?

And please don’t get me wrong! I truly believe that understanding your customers, their needs and their lives should be at the core of a business to be successful.

But I’ve come to think that customer insight reporting greatly suffers from DSC (Discovery Channel Symptom): even if you spent all your time watching nature documentaries on Discovery Channel, you wouldn’t still really ‘get’ what nature is. And same applies to your customers: I’m rather critical if any of the reports done (most typically) by external consultants deliver the point and are able to capture the essence of customers as complex and living humans.

…but you should still write them

However — and paradoxically — writing customer insight reports might be the very thing you should do!

First, writing (in general terms, I accept powerpoints here as well) forces more active and clear thinking about any topic. If your task is to write a report about your customers instead of informally interviewing a bunch of them and then pinpointing a few ‘key highlights’, you’ll have to spend much more time and effort in analysing what you saw and heard in order to have enough relevant content to share. In my experience best insights are created in the fieldwork analysis sessions, and while writing the reports.

Second, in any large organisation it is necessary to have insights formalised and shared, so that knowledge and awareness spread and employees have a shared understanding who their customers are. But what is critical is to have the analysis, or part of it, done in-house. As consultants we often felt that we ‘got’ our clients’ customers much better than our clients did.

Again, consider the case of a documentarist, document viewer and a tourist, all focused in the same city. Who do you think best ‘gets’ the city? Whose level of knowledge would you prefer to have in your team?