Do As I Do, Not As I Say
This is my site Written by Alora on December 22, 2010 – 11:41 am

A recent post on VentureBeat entitled, Stop listening to you customers, makes a very important distinction when it comes to understanding your customers: listening to what they say may be the norm, but watching what they actually do is often far more revealing.

This is an interesting point for entrepreneurs to consider, because for most of us, we are inclined to believe that asking a question about a customer’s behavior is going to give us meaningful information. To be sure, asking is often far easier and more affordable than watching — especially if we do not get the opportunity to sit in the same room with our customers and observe their behavior.

However, one need only look to several popular industries to be reminded that what people say they do and what people actually do are two different things: diet programs, organizing systems, time management programs, etc. are all large industries based on the fact that what the habits people want to have for themselves are different from the ones they actually have.

In brick and mortar businesses, many of these types of things can be readily witnessed simply by re-arranging physical space: move products around, change the layout of the menu, change the items closest to the cash register or watch how customers interact with your environment. This can be extremely telling, and a good way to know if your customers are likely to grab that Snickers bar as they stand in line to check out, or if they are more likely to order off the Specials Menu if it’s a separate menu than if it’s attached to the regular one.

But what about online businesses? Believe it or not, in the world of online analytics this may be even easier — assuming you know how to set up proper testing, and how to track the results.

A/B testing is a common method used for seeing what really grabs your customers and what doesn’t. The idea behind A/B testing is very scientific: take two virtually identical pieces of content, and then change a single element to differentiate one from the other. Whether it’s the subject line, the color scheme, the main graphic, an advertisement or the font size, this method is a common one to use on landing pages, email campaigns and other published online content. Monitoring the results is a great way to test what your customers are responding to. (Subject lines and graphics are often big factors, by the way.)

The trick to doing A/B testing, however, is being able to track the results. You can start with a free package, such as Google Analytics. You can quickly and easily set up your testing to show you how one option fared versus the other. (If you want to attempt A/B testing for email campaigns, all standard email campaign applications, including WorkingPoint’s partner, VerticalResponse, offer analytics to help you do the same thing.)

I do not entirely agree with the authors that asking your users a question is of no value at all, though. While I can concede their point when it comes to collecting very specific feedback about an individual product, the fact is that most small businesses and entrepreneurs will often find a great deal of value in asking open-ended questions of their customers as a first step.

One of the biggest perils that an entrepreneur can face is the assumption that he knows what his customers really want. While a good entrepreneur may have an idea, the only way to start planning how to iterate on your offering is to start by asking questions. Open-ended questions and on-going feedback are important to understand how to proceed next. I often recommend this to clients, before they start getting more scientific about monitoring results. Otherwise, how do they know what to test for?

Of course, there is another really important reason to start by asking your customers and creating a two-way conversation with them: it shows them that you care. And while that may not be the highest priority for large enterprises, that is a must for any small business to thrive.