The One Little Word You Need to Ask to Understand Your Customers

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To truly know your customers, you've got to understand them. To really understand them, you need to ask them 'Why?' By Belle Beth Cooper (Co-founder, HelloCode and Exist)

This post originally appeared on Crew blog.

There’s a technique taken from the Toyota Production System called The Five Whys. It’s a process of asking why over and over (five times) until you discover a deeper insight—that is, what’s at the heart of the problem. It’s something the Buffer team implements to find the true cause of things that go wrong, rather than dealing with problems at a surface level.

Although The Five Whys is a process for drilling down on the cause of a problem, its core focus is not being satisfied with a surface-level explanation. Another place this approach is hugely beneficial is when talking to customers.

One of the strangest things we’ve come across in running Exist is customer behavior we struggle to explain. We sometimes discuss actions our customers take, or don’t take, with puzzlement as we wonder at their motives. After all, our aim is to build something people love, and to do that we need to get to know our customers and understand them.

Sometimes we’re truly stumped, but other times if we keep asking why we can dig deep enough to work out what’s really going on underneath that strange behaviour and how we can use that knowledge to improve our product.

Here are a few examples we’ve come across so far that might be helpful when talking to your own customers.

Adamant Subscribers

When we started working on Exist, we set up a landing page with an email waiting list that people could subscribe to while we worked on building and testing a private beta. The list grew to 3,500 people before we launched our public beta and we sent them all an announcement email on launch day.

Not everyone on the list signed up, which we expected, but they didn’t unsubscribe either. It’s now six months later, and that list is still sitting at almost 3,000 subscribers. We’ve sent emails to those subscribers every time we have a product update to announce, but for the longest time we couldn’t understand why they were hanging around. If they’d decided our product wasn’t for them, why not unsubscribe?

With a bit of digging and experimenting, we began to understand some of the main reasons why.

Some were genuinely interested in our product, but weren’t yet convinced to sign up. They were either waiting for us to implement specific features, or they simply wanted to keep an eye on Exist’s development because they weren’t ready to jump in just yet.

Another major reason for subscribers to hang around really surprised us: a lot of them signed up initially because they knew my work from Buffer and were curious about what my new project would be all about. They were interested in keeping up with my recent work, but not necessarily interested in the product itself. Once we knew this, we were able to make more use out of this mailing list by sharing all our recent content with those subscribers. We’re now providing value to those people who are interested because they know me from Buffer, and if they like our content hopefully they’ll share it around.

And for anyone who has been sitting on the list without any intention of using our product, we’re now giving them more incentive to unsubscribe because we’re emailing them more often—great news for our engagement levels on that list.

Asking why people are still subscribed to our list helped us realize there are people who want to support without necessarily buying our product. We’d been missing an opportunity to include these people in our community and share value with them. Now that we know they want to be involved in other ways besides using Exist, we can send them our content, keep them updated on our progress, and engage with them more about our startup journey.

Zombie Customers

You might have heard of zombie customers. They’re the people who keep paying for your service month after month, but never use it. There are a few reasons why this can happen, and to be honest I’ve found it difficult to track down the reason in every case—zombie customers tend to be difficult to get in touch with, it seems. But from the few we’ve heard from, here are some of the ‘why’s’ underlying the seemingly strange decision to pay recurring fees for something you don’t use.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for a SaaS business to have zombie customers is that a small, recurring subscription is easy to forget. Some customers sign up, try the product once, decide it’s not for them and forget about it. If they don’t cancel their account, they keep paying. These are the zombies Lincoln Murphy talked about in his post, Do the Right Thing (and fight the Zombies). Lincoln suggests refunding these customers and suspending their accounts, lest they finally realize they’ve been paying you for no reason, close their account and resent you for taking their money without providing value.

There are a couple of other reasons we’ve found customers hang around, even if they don’t use our product. One is that they’re waiting for something specific: a feature, an integration, a new direction. They’re willing to pay a subscription while they wait, because they expect what they want will come along soon enough.

The other main reason we’ve found is that some of our customers simply want to support us, and paying for a subscription is the way we’ve made that possible. Usually they either see a lot of potential in what our product could become, even though they’re not getting value from it now, or they simply believe in our team and want to see us succeed.

Obviously for customers with these reasons you wouldn’t want to refund them and close their accounts, because they want to be paying users. Asking why helps uncover their motivations so you don’t make a mistake when trying to do the right thing.

Asking why some customers keep paying without using our product helped us get feedback about features or changes they’re waiting for. We can use this insight to prioritize new features on our roadmap, and get a better understanding of how people want to use our product.

Misdirected Customer Feedback

It’s been said over and over but it’s worth remembering when dealing with your own customers: often when they tell you what they want, there’s more to the story. When doing customer development interviews or reading feedback emails, I’ve come across several examples where asking why and drilling deeper into what our users say actually turns up a much more useful insight than dealing with just their initial request.

For instance, we have a built-in mood tracking feature in Exist that sends you an email every night at 9pm asking you to rate your day. Several customers have shared feedback asking for the email to be sent at a different time or asking to have control over what time it gets sent. We considered building in this extra control for the user, but when I asked more questions about the process I found that these customers actually had an issue with the fact that they had to do so in an email at all—the timing wasn’t the real problem, the format was.

We’re already working on this process but if I hadn’t drilled down further I would have missed these cues reinforcing that decision, and maybe wasted time building a feature that didn’t really solve our users’ problem.

Asking why our customers want a particular feature helped us dig into the way they use our product and how we can improve it. It would have been easy to just implement what they asked for, but then we would have missed the underlying issue.

If you take one thing away from this, I hope it’s a reminder to ask why. Particularly when customers do or say things you don’t understand. You might be surprised when you find out their true motivations.

Photo credit: marekuliasz via Shutterstock.


About the guest blogger: Belle Beth Cooper is a co-founder of Exist, a personal analytics platform that helps you understand your life. Find her on Twitter at @BelleBCooper.