Study the behavior of your customers

ARCHAEOLOGISTS CONTINUE to discover more ruins in Pompeii, Italy, buried by a volcano centuries ago. The more they uncover, the more anthropologists can give us a real feel for what life was like in that city more than 2,000 years ago.

The American Franz Boas is considered the father of anthropology and defines the various research methods now commonly used throughout the world.

What has this got to do with running a business and innovation? In many ways, a business owner is like an anthropologist studying human behavior. The key to developing new products or services is to identify problems or opportunities for potential targeted customers.

This is known as “ethnographic research.” Henry Dreyfuss first pioneered industrial design in the 1950s. Dreyfuss is known for designing some of the most iconic devices found in American homes and offices throughout the 20th Century, including the Western Electric Model 500 telephone, the Big Ben alarm clock and the Honeywell round thermostat.

Ethnographic research has made air travel unbelievably safe. Historically at one point, aviation experts studied airplane crashes caused by two cockpit toggle switches that were similar in shape and size, one for the flaps and one for the landing gear. Now the switches have completely different shapes, so pilots can utilize them without even looking at them.

The goal is to continue making technology more human-friendly and trying to eliminate human error.

Business owners are often instructed to “walk in the shoes” of their customers in developing their ethnographic research insights. But how do you do that?

One business leader figured it out because Keli Backes began her career as a waitress serving truck drivers in the transportation business. She listened intently as they described the challenges in driving trucks, the dangers, and their frustrations. That inspired Keli to seek employment in the transportation industry and eventually she worked her way up to becoming president of Oak Creek-based B&K Transportation/Transport National.

She used the insights from truckers to evolve the business and grow its reputation, addressing the specific needs of customers while at the same time developing the loyalty of the truck drivers who make great service possible.

Transporting products by truck is, in many ways, a commodity business because there are numerous options when utilizing trucking services. Keli learned that by providing seamless and easy transportation options for customers, they earned customer loyalty and thereby differentiated her company from the competition.

It begins with purchasing trailers that have high-quality equipment capable of meeting customers’ diverse needs. But it doesn’t end there. She’s acquired state-of-the-art software programs that assist drivers in loading trailers and find the best routes that avoid traffic and construction delays that ensure on-time deliveries.

Behind all of this is back-office support that is second to none. That includes a steady commitment to maintenance of the equipment, ongoing training of drivers so they know how to take advantage of the new equipment and keeping the trucks clean and in perfect functioning order.

There’s even the human component of providing training for wellness so drivers can counter the effects of sitting long hours.

B&K Transportation/Transport National does not fall into the commodity pricing trap but focuses on market differentiation by studying customers’ needs and relying on technology to continue improving their experience.

You may not necessarily have the opportunity to be a waitress, but you can brainstorm ways to do relevant customer research by interacting with the people you serve.

There’s a tendency in America to move right to a solution. But the time spent in a variety of capacities to “walk in the shoes” of your customers will lead to more creative and innovative products or services. Here are some tips:

» Pretend every team member is an anthropologist and identify multiple ways to get inside the customers’ framework and mindset and appreciate and understand the frustrations or challenges.

» Keep asking the question “why?” multiple times of your customers to really understand the depth of the problem.

» Don’t hesitate to use a video camera, even with Zoom, to observe customers interacting with your product or service.

» Perhaps you should develop nonmonetary rewards for those who come up with the greatest and most relevant insights. Give them an “anthropologist” award.

With that in mind, the next time you’re in a restaurant or a bar, remember the waitress or waiter helping you may be the next entrepreneur that starts or scales a business!