Tag Archives: Wal-Mart

Why Your Customer Research Is Flawed

U.S. pollsters got quite a surprise in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, 2016.

That’s when it became apparent that their sophisticated voter research had completely failed to predict the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.  Longtime Republican political strategist Mike Murphy went so far as to assert that “data died” that night.

Yes, the 2016 U.S. presidential election was a highly visible casualty for data-driven research, but far from the only one.

In 1985, Coca-Cola announced the rollout of “New Coke,” an updated formulation of the venerable soft drink, designed to appeal to changing consumer tastes.

In launching the new formula, the company cited research indicating that taste was the primary driver behind the brand’s market share slide. The firm also pointed to blind taste tests that indicated that a majority of consumers favored New Coke over its predecessor (and over Pepsi).

As it turns out, the research pointed Coca-Cola in the wrong direction. Three months after rolling the revised formulation out, the company acknowledged widespread public discontent and returned the original Coke to store shelves. New Coke was killed in 2002.

See also: 5 Key Customer Experience Trends  

What went wrong? One thing that Coca-Cola failed to account for was the emotional dimension of consumer buying behavior. Even if people said they preferred New Coke in taste tests, many had an emotional attachment to the original formula that – outside of the research bubble – superseded their rational judgment on taste.

This is why an overreliance on traditional research methods (i.e., asking customers what they want or like) can lead a company astray. Surveys and questionnaires do a poor job of accounting for the emotional considerations that drive customer behavior.

As behavioral science has clearly demonstrated, it’s those emotional considerations that often exert the strongest influence on individual decision-making. (As renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman has described it, “the emotional tail wags the rational dog.”)

Post-mortems on the 2016 election polling have also referred to the emotional “blind spot” of traditional research methods. Evans Witt, president of the National Council on Public Polls, highlighted this issue to NPR, noting that “polls do a poor job with emotion/enthusiasm/commitment”; that may have been an important behavioral influence on what was a very polarized electorate.

There’s another reason, though, why traditional question-based customer research can mislead, and it comes down to this simple truth: There’s a big difference between what customers say and what customers do.

Wal-Mart found this out the hard way in 2009 when it launched a store redesign effort dubbed Project Impact.

The company had conducted customer surveys, which indicated that shoppers didn’t like Wal-Mart’s cluttered, dimly lit stores. They wanted cleaner, more streamlined layouts.

Project Impact sought to deliver on this apparent customer preference by de-cluttering the store – removing endcaps, widening aisles and improving navigability.

Even the store’s famed “Action Alley,” the main corridor separating departments, wasn’t immune to the changes. Traditionally dotted with palettes piled high with fast-selling items, Action Alley was cleared out by Project Impact, opening up sight lines across the entire store.

It all sounded like a good idea… until same-store sales started to plummet. The reason? To streamline the store layout, Wal-Mart had to eliminate, by some estimates, 15% of its store inventory. When customers could no longer find their favorite brand at Wal-Mart, they went elsewhere to pick it up – and shifted their shopping to competing stores that offered a wider product selection.

In addition, it turns out that Action Alley – while perhaps contributing to store clutter – also triggered a lot of impulse buys among Wal-Mart shoppers. When Action Alley disappeared, so did a lot of sales.

Since its founding by Sam Walton in the 1960s, Wal-Mart’s strategy had always centered on offering low prices and a wide selection (“Stack ‘em high, watch ‘em fly,” as Sam liked to say).

Sam apparently knew his customers better than the company’s modern researchers, because it turns out people shop at Wal-Mart for – you guessed it – value and selection. Shoppers might have said they wanted a clutter-free store – but in reality, the clutter was part of the appeal for them, feeding into their hunt for great deals and impulse purchases.

What could Wal-Mart have done differently? Instead of just asking customers what they wanted, they should have observed them in action, navigating the store and making purchases. They should have spoken to shoppers one-on-one, to better understand what shaped their purchase behavior once they stepped foot into a Wal-Mart.

It’s precisely this type of context and nuance that traditional customer research methods miss – because what customers say they want is sometimes quite different from what they actually value.

Indeed, that which the customer values the most may also be the thing that’s hardest for them to articulate. Hence the mismatch between what people say and what people do.

See also: Are You Ready for the New Customer?  

Traditional customer research has merit, but its precision is often oversold. To steer your business in the right direction, don’t just look at the data, look at your customers.

Immerse yourself in their experience and observe them in their natural habitat – because that’s where you’ll find the priceless insights about how to better serve them.

This article first ran on WaterRemarks, the official blog of Watermark Consulting.

Decision Dysfunction in Corporate America

Nancy Newbee is the newest trainee for LOCO (Large Old Company). She was hired because she is bright, articulate, well-educated and motivated. She is in her second week of training.

Her orders include: “We’ll teach you all you need to know. Sammy Supervisor will monitor your every action and coordinate your training. Don’t take a step without his clearance. When he’s busy, just read through the procedures manual.”

Nancy is already frustrated by this training process but is committed to following the rules.

Upon arriving at work today, Nancy discovers the kitchen is on fire! As instructed, she rushes to Sammy Supervisor. Interrupting him, she says, “There’s a major problem!”

Sammy is obviously disturbed by this interruption in his routine. “Nancy, my schedule will not allow me to work with you until this afternoon; go back to the conference room and continue studying the procedures.”

“But, Mr. Supervisor, this is a major problem!” Nancy pleads.

“But nothing! I’m busy. We’ll discuss it this afternoon. If it can’t wait, go see the department head,” Sam says.

Nancy rushes to the office of Billy Big and shouts, “Mr. Big, we have a major problem, and Mr. Sam said to see you!” Mr. Big states politely, “I’m busy now …,” all the while wondering why Sam hires these excitable airheads.

“But, Mr. Big, the building…,” Nancy interrupts.

“Nancy, see my secretary for an appointment or call maintenance if it’s a building problem,” Mr. Big says impatiently, thinking, “Where does Sam find these characters?”

Near panic, Nancy calls maintenance. The line is busy. As a last resort, Nancy calls Ruth Radar, the senior secretary in the accounting department. Everyone has told her that Ruth really runs this place. She can get anything done.

“Ruth Radar, may I help you?” is the response on the phone.

“Miss Radar, this is Nancy, the new trainee. The building is on fire! What should I do?” Nancy shouts through her tears.

“Nancy, call 911!” Ruth says calmly.

Of course, this dysfunction is a ridiculous example. Or is it?

Assuming you are the boss, try this eight-question test:

  1. In your business, do you hire the best and brightest and then instruct them not to think, act or do anything during their training except as you tell them to do?
  2. Do you promise training but substitute reading of procedure manuals?
  3. Do you create barriers to communications, interaction and effectiveness by scheduling the new employee’s problems and inquiries to the busy schedules of your other personnel?
  4. Do you and your staff ignore what new employees are saying?
  5. Is the process more important than the result? Does the urgent get in the way of the important?
  6. Do layers of bureaucracy between you, your employees and customers interfere with contact, communications and results?
  7. Is “Ruth Radar” running your shop?
  8. Do you have any fires burning in your office?

If you answered “no” to all of these questions, congratulations!

Now go back and try again. The perfect business would have eight “no” answers, but very few businesses are perfect. If you are like LOCO (a large old company), you might be so far out of touch with your trainees, employees and customers that you won’t hear about a fire until it starts to burn your desk.

Look back at IBM, GM and Sears in the late 1980s. These were kings of their jungles. Yet all nearly burned to the ground. Many thousands of employees were terminated, profits ended and stock values fell. If you would have talked to any of these terminated employees you would have learned that the fire had burned for a long time and that many people had tried to sound the alarm.

Remember the large old insurance companies that are no longer here – Continental, Reliance, etc. Did their independent agents smell the smoke? Did the leadership of these carriers ignore the alarm?

Sam Walton, who had reasonable success in business during his lifetime, once said, “There is only one boss – the customer. Customers can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending their money somewhere else.”

Sam was right. In your business, do you or Nancy have the most direct contact with the customer – the ultimate boss? If Nancy has the most contact, is she adequately trained, motivated and monitored? Is she providing feedback to you? Are you listening?

Take one minute to draw a picture of your organization. Are you, as the boss, at the pinnacle? Are Nancy and her fellow trainees at the base? Is it prudent to have the least experienced personnel closest to the customers?

Your organization was formed to meet the needs of customers. You exist to serve these same customers. Where are these customers in the organizational chart? Did you forget them? How much distance is there between you (as boss) and the customers?

Does this pyramid model facilitate the free flow of information between you and the customers or does it buffer you from the thoughts and feelings of the real boss (the customer)? In your business, is the customer and her problem seen as an interruption of the work or the very reason for your existence?

If your customers voted tomorrow, who would be retained? Who would be fired?

Think about it! Do you dare to ask?

The Dangers of Standing Still

One of the most telling episodes of Kodak’s slide into bankruptcy was how it incorporated digital capabilities into its Advantix camera system.

Kodak spent more than $500 million to develop and launch the Advantix in 1996. The system capitalized on emerging digital capabilities— especially the digital sensors that Kodak engineers had invented two decades earlier—to capture date, time, shutter speed and lighting conditions to produce better pictures. The strategy culminated in the Advantix Preview camera, which allowed photographers to preview shots and mark how many prints they wanted. Kodak gave users no ability to save the digital images, however. The Advantix required traditional silver halide film and prints.

Advantix flopped. Why buy a digital camera and still pay for film and prints? Kodak wrote off almost the entire cost of development.

Kodak’s strategic blunder was not because of a lack of technological prowess; it was because of an inability to embrace business model innovation. Kodak was the market-leading photo film, chemical and paper business. It bet its future on “the hope that demand for digital images would sell more film.” As a result, Kodak protected its traditional business to the bitter end—until others leveraged digital to make film irrelevant.

Judging from recent comments by Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s chief executive, we might one day read about how Nissan repeated the pattern of Kodak’s decades-long blunder and demonstrated the dangers of standing still during a period of industry innovation (like what’s happening in insurance).

Ghosn has championed his company’s efforts to develop autonomous driving technologies to allow cars to operate without human intervention. And, unlike some other large automakers (such as Toyota), Ghosn does not dispute the technical feasibility of driverless cars.

But Ghosn views the choice of semi-autonomous vs. driverless as a strategic decision—and he is clear that his choice is to use autonomous technologies as incremental enhancements to cars with drivers. As reported by the Associated Press via the New York Times: Ghosn said Nissan sees autonomous vehicles as adding to driving pleasure, and a totally driverless car is not at the center of the automaker’s plans. The autonomous driving Nissan foresees will assist or enhance driving. Nissan may end up with a driverless car, but that was not the automaker’s goal, he said. “That is the car of the future. But the consumer is more conservative. That makes us cautious.”

In other words, Ghosn’s strategy is to hope that the demand for autonomous technologies will sell more cars. Like Kodak, he is aiming to reinforce Nissan’s current business model rather than embrace business model innovation.

By being cautious, however, Ghosn risks emulating Kodak’s failure by waiting for others to leverage driverless technologies to make traditional cars irrelevant. He also risks ceding emerging business innovations to Google, Uber and others willing to make driverless cars their explicit primary goal.

The unanswered question is whether Ghosn, behind the scenes, is parlaying his technological forward-mindedness into strategic preparedness.

Carlos Ghosn need not shed his caution. But, as I previously argued, trillions hang in the balance. Given those stakes, has Ghosn hedged Nissan’s strategic bets in case the driverless “car of the future” comes more quickly than he expects?

Some argue that, of course, Nissan won’t be caught flat-footed even if driverless cars come sooner than expected. Look, for example, at its research partnership with NASA. But research is not enough.

A trap that market-leading companies fall into is believing that they can catch up if their initially cautious strategies turn out to be wrong. One lesson that Paul Carroll and I found in our study of thousands of large company failures is that it is very hard to excise denial from multiple layers of the organization—even after objective evidence argues for doing so. Another lesson is that, while it is possible to catch up on raw technical expertise, it is hard to catch up after yielding multiple product-oriented learning cycles to competitors.

Take electric hybrid cars. A former senior technologist of one of the big automakers told me his company considered but rejected hybrid electric cars before Toyota launched the Prius. The automaker was at first dismissive of the Prius and then surprised by its market success. It did jump into the market with its own offering. But, the technologist bemoaned, it has not been able to catch up. With each model, Toyota gets further ahead. The company ceded too many learning cycles to Toyota.

The same could be happening with driverless cars.

Nissan espouses caution about driverless cars. Whatever research is going on in its labs is mostly hidden from the public (perhaps to not confuse the market or provide succor to competing strategies).

Google, on the other hand, will soon release 25 prototype driverless cars onto the streets of Mountain View, with plans to launch 75 more. Google’s self-driving cars have logged a collective 1.7 million miles and are adding about 10,000 miles per week, mostly on city streets. Google has not cracked all the issues involved with driverless cars. It has, however, created the ability to learn faster.

Kodak, as evidenced by its own tongue-in-cheek marketing video, ended up play “grab ass” for years with digital photography. Late attempts to “get serious” were too late. Even now, 40 years after Kodak engineer Steven Sasson invented the digital still camera, Kodak still struggles to realize the potential of its IP portfolio.

Likewise, every market-leading department retailer of the 1950s and ’60s, such as Macy’s, Woolworth’s and Ames, thought it could contend with discount retailers like Wal-Mart if the need arose.

Only Dayton Hudson took the discounting business model seriously. Rather than watch and wait, Dayton Hudson formed a discounting business unit and unleashed that subsidiary to compete as hard as possible against the traditional business. That discount subsidiary was named Target. Of the more than 300 department-store chains in the U.S. in the late 1950s, only Dayton Hudson/Target successfully moved into discount retailing. Most of the others preceded Kodak on the path to bankruptcy.

Rather than following in the footsteps of Kodak and all those defunct department stores, Nissan should be more like Dayton Hudson.

Instead of just betting on caution, Nissan should also unleash innovators to create its own driverless offering and charge them with competing as hard as possible against its traditional business.