Growth Insights for CEOs

Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell; Just Observe.

Posted by Atul Minocha

atuls edited picture

You remember your first time, don’t you?

No, not THAT one. I am talking about the first time you learned something new that has served you well time and again for years. In this blog, I want to share something I discovered very early in my career and have used effectively ever since.

As my friends know, I was “dragged into marketing." Long story short, I got an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from a premier institute so I could pursue my dream of designing cars.  My first job out of college was with Toyota (yay!!) as they were starting up their operations in India (I was employee number 19). The only problem was that they, much against my wishes and protestations, placed me in the marketing function because that’s where they needed most help. 

The CEO-designate handed me keys to a brand new pickup truck that had just been imported from Japan and asked me to “drive around the country…talk to other truck drivers…find out what features they like and don’t like …and what they would pay for these new features.” Keep in mind, this was in the early 80s and the Indian automotive market had been well shielded from foreign competition and technological advances that were commonplace around the world at that time. For example, there were no seat belts (or seat-belt laws) in automobiles in India.  No motorized windshield washer either. Or reverse lights. Yes, I am talking about the 80’s in India.

As you can imagine, a 22-year old with a brand new pickup truck (and an expense account) can learn a lot! Fast!!

As we drove around the country, stopping and chatting with truck drivers at truck stops and roadside restaurants (“dhabas”), we found we had no trouble recruiting willing survey respondents (see neighboring photograph of this author and his team on location in eastern India close to the border of Myanmar and China). Our Toyota pickup truck was different and attractive enough to pique the curiosity of even veteran truck drivers.  Lesson # 1: Go where the customers are and give them a reason to stop and talk to you.

Atul Minocha marketing in India

One of the more important and intriguing questions we had to answer was about seat belts.  There were no laws mandating their use in India at the time. Should Toyota establish a new benchmark in safety in India? As we surveyed our potential customers, we noticed we were spending a lot of time explaining the use of seat belts. 

As conversations wore on, we discovered that many drivers were not only dubious of the safety value of seat belts but also seemed to believe that use of seat belts would make the truck less safe. This, to us, was hearsay in light of irrefutable data and evidence we had from around the world.

As we continued on our mission and drove across the country, we finally had a chance to observe something that opened our eyes and minds. 

One late afternoon, as we drove on a sparingly used highway, we found a truck that had been in an accident, lying in its own rubble, having hit an old and sturdy teak tree on the side of the road. The truck was clearly a total loss, and given the smoke and steam coming out from under what used to be its hood, the accident had just happened. We prepared ourselves mentally for the worst as we stopped to help. To our surprise there was no one inside the cabin. The two men standing by side of the road looking at the truck - who we mistook for local villagers as they had no sign of any trauma - were the crew of what used to be a truck. 

As we started talking, we discovered that at the first sign of loss of control, both the driver and his helper riding with him, opened their respective doors and jumped out before the truck hit the tree. It took us no more than a minute to realize how seat belts, if there had been any, might have “hindered” their timely escape!  Lesson # 2:  Sometimes, customers are unable to articulate nearly as well as they are able to demonstrate. Hence, it’s far more valuable to observe customers using your product or service than asking about it.

Since then, I have had (and created) many opportunities for myself and my marketing and engineering staff to spend time with customers in their natural settings as they went about using our products. 

Surveys and focus groups clearly have their place and are considered staples for any market research project. But whenever possible, try and observe customers in their natural settings. I bet you will come back with insights you never would have considered asking about.  

Topics: Customer Intimacy, Market Research

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