Stuart Knapman writes about the power of challenging preconceptions and rebuilding connections with customers.

It’s hard to dispute that a good understanding of people is pretty fundamental to commercial success. But it’s getting harder for us to feel close to people who aren’t like us. We increasingly live in social bubbles, becoming progressively less able to appreciate others’ viewpoints. We do fewer of the things that promote mutual understanding, whether it’s talking to our neighbours or taking part in team sport. We sit alone buying products from the comfort of our own sofas. Parents in playgrounds stare at their smartphones.

And it’s just as acute a problem in business. Businesses should be better at understanding people because they have customer insights, backed up by vast quantities of data. Yet more and more there’s a nagging sense that the business is lacking empathy. Empathy towards people whose lives are different; whose motivations and constraints and circumstances and concerns are different; whose favourite meals and TV shows and holiday destinations are different.

For all the money spent on insights, technology and data analytics, there’s a growing realisation that it’s possible to know everything but feel nothing. This is making it harder to be distinctive, disruptive and innovative.

And there’s mounting evidence that the wider marketing industry just doesn’t think like mass mainstream audiences. Reach Solutions’ Empathy Delusion work supported this concern with hard numbers, showing that, as an industry, marketers and advertisers have a significantly different ethical and cultural compass compared to modern mainstream audiences. We are much more likely to self-define as liberals which, paradoxically, makes it harder to appreciate others’ viewpoints.

It's a real problem not least because a misunderstanding of people’s values (or an assumption that they’re the same as ours) can lead to campaigns and innovations that really fall flat.

This was an issue long before the pandemic. But during the past couple of years, the vast majority of people in the marketing industry worked from home, while the picture was very different across Britain, so that sense of distance from ordinary lives has only grown.

There’s a pressing need for businesses reconnect their staff with their customers - in ways that challenge preconceptions, build empathy and inspire some real epiphanies. One of the best ways to achieve this is customer immersion.

Customer immersion is the term used to describe a variety of techniques through which staff connect directly with customers and prospects through conversations or experiences, helping them see things differently. This can range from one-off ad-hoc events for a handful of staff through to ongoing programmes involving an entire business.

While traditionally conducted face-to-face, advances in research technology coupled with the big retreat from 9-5 office-based working have led to an increased use of remote and hybrid approaches to connect staff with customers.

This can make it more accessible and convenient for everyone involved, whilst casting a wider geographical net - with less reliance on London or other cities. It can also provide staff with more direct exposure to customers’ reality, such as using mobile ethnography to see real moments of product consumption, as they happen. Technology can also provide a platform for stakeholders to easily capture and collate their thoughts and ideas as the immersion is happening.

In very broad terms, there are four different types of customer immersion, each seeing people through a slightly different lens. Click on each one to read more.

The default lens through which businesses tend to see customers and prospects is their own brand or product, so a large proportion of customer immersion activity starts here. It’s typically very goal-oriented, getting marketing or product teams together with their target audience to develop or refine a concept or solve a problem. Done well, with creatively minded participants, it generally leads to ideas or solutions that stand a better chance of working in the real world.

Remote or face-to-face co-creation groups are great for collaborative problem-solving or idea-building, while hothouse workshops or online communities are a great way to progressively refine some rough ideas.

When it comes to problem-solving, targeted clinics can work really well in tandem with existing research such as a customer satisfaction tracker – pinpointing specific areas where things aren’t working as they should be and recruiting customers who have experienced that issue – to help make it better. Businesses with customer community panels can use them to pinpoint exactly the right people to talk to.

Moving one step away from the day-to-day business, there’s value in widening the lens to look at the category in which a brand operates. It’s easy to believe that you know your category inside-out: the market dynamics, the shopper behaviours and the quantifiable drivers of choice.

But it can look very different when you experience it through the eyes of real people living real lives, so this form of immersion is all about giving staff hands-on experiences of people’s day-to-day product decisions, moments of consumption or category problems.

Teams may take part in home visits, shop-alongs, drink-alongs or other accompanied activities that let them see what happens in the moment. Mobile ethnography tools are increasingly being used to allow staff to peer into these specific moments in people’s lives.

Sometimes it provides an important reality-check – seeing that people don’t read all the details on the pack in the way they said they did in research or noticing how difficult it is using your product with two small kids and a very limited time.

Sometimes it’s an important way to focus on unmet needs or Jobs-To-Be-Done that could be resolved or enhanced through new ideas. Either way, it’s fantastic stimulus for innovation or brand strategy.

Widening the lens a little further, some of the most powerful customer immersion activities simply set out to connect businesses with the people and the lives behind their data.

Asking questions, learning about people’s passions and hopes; their problems and fears. This can lead to real road-to-Damascus moments as preconceptions and prejudices fall away.

Speed-dating or structured Q&As can make a big impact as events in their own right, while ongoing community panels can give staff an opportunity to have conversations and experience different lives throughout the year.

While talking directly to customers can lead to real epiphanies, ordinary people can’t (or won’t) always tell you why they think what they think or want what they want or live like they live.

To uncover great insights, we often need to look beyond the things that people say and collect clues about what’s happening behind and around them: their neighbourhood, their influences, their social and cultural norms and challenges.

Enabling staff to immerse in this consumer context can lead to bigger and bolder ideas. In practice this can mean asking people to show staff around their area or introduce them to key figures in their community. This may be coupled with expert or influencer interviews to help make sense of it all.

Activities can also be designed to give staff hands-on experience of the cultural trends that are shaping the lives and preferences of their target. Again, these activities can take place physically or remotely.

Done well, customer immersion can be inspiring - game changing, even. However, it can also lose momentum, or worst still, go spectacularly wrong. Here are some key things to consider;

  • Immersion needs to be stage-managed. Even the best events can be let down by poorly planned logistics or a failure to expect the unexpected.
  • Briefings are critical. It’s important to coach staff in what to look for, how to act, how to listen and elicit and observe. It’s also important to acknowledge the inherent cognitive biases that may shape staff’s interpretation of their immersion encounters – and how to overcome them. This matters because when assumptions and prejudices come into play, immersion activities can be counter-productive.
  • Outputs are everything. Immersion can really drive business decisions but only if you plan for, and allow sufficient time for, staff to talk, share experiences, spot themes and consider the implications. Without this, it quickly becomes a nice-to-have.
  • The best immersion works in tandem with research. Immersion activities should link back to specific issues or opportunities identified through research or enable staff to shape the research agenda by spotting emerging areas of interest.
  • Engagement can’t be taken for granted. For longer-term immersion programmes, it’s vital to think about how to keep staff and customers engaged. This typically means continually checking that activities are providing actionable outputs. But above all it requires a senior-level acknowledgment that customer understanding is vital the business’ long-term prosperity.

For all the advances in technology, research and analytics, many businesses feel increasingly remote from their customers and prospects; from the people behind the data. They don’t live like them or think like them, so they struggle to connect with them: this is bad for business.

Customer immersion – face-to-face, digital or hybrid - helps see things with fresh eyes; to reappraise, to build empathy and ultimately to have better ideas.

We’d love to talk to you about how Verve could help you get closer to your customers by talking more about the techniques we’ve described here in the context of your business needs.

Click here to talk to us.