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The importance of customer insight

by Kevin May, founding Partner, Sticks LLC Henry Ford was a smart man. He built a company that revolutionized an industry that transformed the lives of countless people - and made himself a tidy fortune while going about it. So he probably knew what he was talking about most of the time, which may account for why those who write marketing papers have elevated his quotes to a nigh-on Churchillian pedestal. Kevin May, founding partner at Sticks, talks about vision and insight and their value to business and marketing.

One of Ford's more celebrated aphorisms is that if he’d asked people what they’d wanted, they’d have said faster horses (though the fact that this quote waited until the 21st Century to make its first appearance in print suggests its provenance might be a little questionable). It is usually cited to support the theory that true brilliance comes only from within and can’t be conjured by scrabbling around in search of evidence or sign-posts. While journeymen get bogged down by the pursuit of insights, a few geniuses rise above it all with vision.

Even ignoring the fact that both words are rooted in the ability to see, the notion that a strategy can even be possible without insights is highly questionable. A part of the problem seems to be that the term itself has become abused. An insight has to be more than a notional premise for action.

For an insight to be wholly valuable, it has to be at least five things.

stale ideas and axioms aren’t the stuff of insight

First, it has to be fresh. A real insight shines a light on something that previously had been hidden or undiscovered. Stale ideas and axioms aren’t the stuff of insight, they’re odd bits of received wisdom and bullshittery that everyone in the marketplace (and beyond) shares. You’re not going to garner much of an advantage off that sort of starting point. And what’s the point of a strategy, unless it’s going to give you some sort of advantage?

Second, it has to be penetrating. Superficial observations aren’t insights, they’re statements of the bleeding obvious. Insights go deep into the heart of the situation and land on something specific: the more precise the insight, the greater its capacity to help you reframe your perspective.

Third, it has to be relevant to the business. There are lots of insights, but no matter how interesting and inspirational they may be, if they have no direct bearing on the business – and how to build it – then they will be of very limited use in achieving a commercial objective.

Fourth, it has to be more than just plausible. It has to be probable. Just because it could be the case (in isolation) doesn’t make it an insight. The more it coheres with all the other known facts about a situation, the greater the likelihood that it’s actually true.

Fifth, and possibly most important of all, it has to be capable of drawing predictions. The reason why insights need to be fresh, penetrating, relevant to the business, and more than just plausible, is because their real value lies in the extent to which they can be used to infer what is going to happen.

Strategy only exists as a future prospect. But, sadly, too much of the work of strategy is done in the service of retrofitting and post-rationalization. It’s not hard to identify the crucial factors in a situation and how they all fitted together after the event, but sizeably less useful than doing that work before the play unfolds.

it all boils down to people and raw human insight

Of course, insights come in many different forms. They exist at the macro level, where cultural, economic and anthropological factors are coalescing. They exist at the category level, down to the level of basic truths about products and services. And they exist at the individual level in the hopes, fears, loves and lives of actual and prospective customers. But wherever they exist, eventually it all boils down to people and raw human insight.

That’s not to say that the way to get the best insights about people is simply to go and ask them. People rarely know what they want, what will make them happy, or even what they think; interrogating them directly usually makes for poor information about them. Ford’s reservations were about the source of insights, not the value of insights themselves.

But to suggest that Ford built his edifice with nothing but visionary chutzpah is clearly fallacious. His vision was fed by a deep level of insight into people’s feelings about mobility, affordability, comfort and freedom and in his ability to mobilize a modern workforce and factory.

Much closer to the truth of Ford’s real genius is another of his quotes, and one of much more reliable provenance, "If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own".

And that essentially is what an insight does.

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