Editor’s Note:  There is ample debate as to which approach to understanding your customer is “best”.  But there can be no doubt that analyzing and understanding the customer journey is one of them.  What to do with that journey data, on the other hand, requires a solid understanding of human reasoning, decision-making and data analysis.

“Know your customer” is one of the basic axioms of business. But how do we get to understand just who our customer is and what they want? In recent years we’ve tried to address that question by measuring “the voice of the customer,” and capturing metrics that tell us where people are on the “customer journey.”

By Alan J. Porter

So let’s take a closer look at both of those methods of capturing what we think we know about our customers.

Voice of the Customer: Who Are You Listening To?

What does voice of the customer actually mean? Let’s start with what it isn’t: voice of the customer is not sending surveys and asking people to fill them in. Surveys are by their very nature self-selecting, and they only capture a point in time opinion of a small percentage of people who are already prepared to invest some of their time in your brand.

Social media monitoring might be a way to capture broader insights into what your customers think. It’s faltering to know that you’re being talked about (or maybe not in some cases), but again, this is to some extent a self-selecting cross-section of people who feel they have something to say about your brand and their experience with it. Social media monitoring helps take a pulse of opinion, but we shouldn’t take too much stock of the actual raw numbers associated with it. Numbers of clicks, likes and similar are somewhat meaningless, but interpreted correctly can be a useful way show trends.

So what about measuring the actual voice when a customer calls the help desk or the support line? Remember those? Sentiment analysis of all those call center calls can be useful, but it’s an avenue that’s fast disappearing when so many companies are trying to “deflect” customers from call centers or even having a voice at all.

All these metrics do is tell you what happened at a given point in time on some mythical “customer journey” that we made up.

Customer Journey: The Land of Make Believe?

Customer journeys, as we map and use them, are theoretical amalgams of the steps we believe our customers make when they interact with our brand. They are designed to help us model behavior and wants and deliver the right experience at the right time.

But the reality is every customer’s journey and sequence of interactions with your brand is unique. We not only need to understand what they do when but why.

Don’t Just Measure, Listen

So how do we answer the question of why someone does something at a given point? What drives the interaction with our brand?

Simple. Rather than just measure our customers, we really do need to get to know our customers. It’s a straightforward but old-fashioned idea: build relationships with them. Use the data we collect from our interactions not to make broad-brush metric-based assumptions, but to reflect back that we actually understand who our customers are and what they want. This may be old-fashioned in these days of big data, but nothing beats things like user testing, user groups, customer advisory boards or getting on-site with a customer. Develop true customer advocates in the company and send them out with the sales, professional services, support people. Put them in retail stores — you get the idea.

And sure, we can use tools like AI and machine learning to help spot trends in the data and the metrics, but at the end of the day business is all about people-to-people interactions and only we humans can provide the empathy and understanding needed to truly understand what our customers want, and why.

So let’s stop talking about the voice of the customer and the customer journey and start discussing the customer story.