Two managers were discussing the world of men’s shoes. What role do shoes play in a man’s life? What influences men to buy the kind of shoes they do? What does a man’s world of shoes look like?
The conversation began fairly normally- about the kind of shoes they wore to work, why they chose the colours they did, how it complemented their personalities etc. As the conversation moved into the buying patterns, one of them asked quite seriously, “What is your shoe consuming behavior?” and the other, just as seriously, went on to answer, “My shoe consuming behavior is….”
How did we end up here?
Companies often ask me to work with them in finding a differentiating insight that will change the trajectory of their business. After all, insight is the engine for innovation.
A person’s capacity to uncover an insight begins with the capacity to have meaningful conversations and nuanced observations, to go beyond the obvious of what is said and what is seen and get to the unarticulated- go deeper, so to speak.
And so, before we go out to immerse ourselves in the world of insight, I ask them to sit down and have conversations with each other- so that they can build the art of going from the obvious to the deeper territory of insight.
And one of those conversations was the genesis of shoe consuming behavior!
On reviewing it later, the team went from sheepish laughter to realization. That the language we use, wrapped up in corporate jargon, is so different from the language of the real world. No wonder then, understanding the world our customers exist in, seems difficult. It’s like they are from earth, and we are from an alien planet trying to get them to understand our corporate alien speak. Language is just one of the indicators we have of the distance we create between our customers and ourselves.
When customers become numbers:
A few years ago I happened to work with a consumer durables company just around the time I’d moved into a new home. Its managers were quite taken aback to discover that I hadn’t bought any of their products; not the fridge, or microwave or washing machine. Regretfully they told me of this ultra-intelligent washing machine that was perfectly suited to my needs. They described all its functions and attributes in great detail. I then asked them if they had a simple washing machine instead, with only a stop and start button. It was a puzzling question. They looked at me startled and said, “Yes, we do, but it’s only for rural India and not for an urban, working woman like you.” I went on to explain that my current machine was so complicated that only I could operate it. So while I travelled a fair amount during the week, my weekends were taken up with laundry. If only I had a simpler, easier to use washing machine, then my house help Shakeela, could operate it in my absence. This point had never struck the team. As we discussed it further, they began to think about how they had ended up creating a rigid ‘urban-rural’ divide, that one, didn’t necessarily fit in with the reality of how women lived their lives in India and two, didn’t take into account the commonality of needs across our villages, towns and cities.
In our attempt to simplify this lively, complex, morphing, changing, challenging world of the customer, we end up creating ‘neat little boxes’ that serve to analyse/ examine and create new value propositions. These boxes however hinge on one assumption- that the world is static and humans can be boxed in. We’re boxed in to labels: millennials, feminists, tweens, rebels etc. Or we’re boxed into numbers: 1.2 billion Indians, 70% women, 4/5th of the globe etc.
These labels and numbers give managers a handle on the world, they help in a first level of sorting out: who to go after, where to target and what to do. However, this is merely data and seldom points to transformational insights. And that’s why it’s a mistake to believe that these labels and numbers are the way in which we humans actually exist, live our lives and interact with businesses.
The wise amongst us have been saying this long enough. Charles Handy, in 1994, in his then iconic book, ‘The Empty Raincoat’ said, (in the context of economic growth): “In the pursuit of these goals we can be tempted to forget that it is we, we individual men and women, who should be the measure of all things, not made to measure for something else.” The same can be said of how companies view customers. And if customers are not the measure of all things, well then, the company will not measure up, and its managers will be left, eating…shoes.
We would like to hear your stories!
Where have you experienced shoe-consuming behavior? What are your views on what creates it? What do you do, in your area of work to avoid the trap and uncover real insights?
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My follow up post on shoe eating behaviour will be in Mid January, because the end of the year brings a personal ThinkAnarva post. Happy Holidays!