Using biometrics in customer research

Last week saw the publication of our first co-authored paper reviewing physiological and neuroscientific methods for investigating customer research and employee research. In this article, I’d like to reflect on how these exciting methods can be used to help businesses better understand their customers and staff and how that insight should be used to improve experiences and deliver a genuine return on any investment.

As the famous adman, David Ogilvy so eruditely commented way back in the 1970s, the problem with conventional market research is that:

‘people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.’

Although lots of us instinctively suspect this is true – and modern neuroscience certainly backs that belief – we haven’t before had ready access to the tools necessary to objectively measure in the real world and in real time how people are actually feeling, thinking and doing. Nor have we had a framework for understanding how such measurement might allow us to improve experiences to deliver more sales, more profit and greater customer and staff satisfaction.

The latest customer research tools

The argument made in the current paper is that biometric customer research now offers the tools to benchmark customer experiences and employee experiences from the perspective of psychology, physiology and neurology (mind, body and brain). Through the measurement of heart rate, skin conductance, pupil dilation, eye gaze, electrical activity in the brain and the like, we can identify the moments where an experience is at odds with a customer or employees expectation of that experience. These so-called ‘Tripping Points®’ can be negative or positive, and allow us to: a) categorise their causes; b) understand their relative importance to the overall experience and crucially; c) how to mitigate their impact. This means changing the experience to either eliminate tripping points, to soften their affect or, where they can’t be avoided, to compensate for them. A great example of the latter is ‘Black Friday’, where an incredibly stressful shopping experience is endured by customers and staff in return for very low prices and rapid stock turnover!

Biometric customer research

Understanding tripping points and their causes allows businesses to design better experiences: how they’re delivered; who (or what) does that delivery; where the experience takes place; and how customers are ‘managed’ before, during and after the experience. Biometrics and techniques from behavioural economics (e.g. game theory) can then be used to test these new designs with ‘smart experiments’ (i.e. prototypes, pilots, trials, virtual and physical, on and offline). This allows the new, enhanced experience to be honed and refined before being rolled out to the wider world. Following this implementation it is imperative to keep measuring the experience objectively, using the original benchmark to gauge relative success and introducing further refinements as and when necessary.

Better than customer surveys alone

You might be questioning how any of this is different from, and indeed better than, what you get from your current (conventional) customer research? Well, I would use the analogy of the forensic science of criminal investigation. No detective (or court) would try to convict someone based on hearsay alone. Eyewitness accounts need to be backed up by scientific evidence that avoids the conscious filter of subjective reflection, the vagaries of human memory and the issue of being asked to evaluate things that are individual components of a whole, holistic experience. Only by comparing and contrasting both the biometric and the self-report can we hope to get an accurate understanding of the experience and how it influences behaviour. And it is this that will ultimately allow us to reshape such experiences to make them better for the customer, the employee and the bottom line.

Our Best Western, Honda and Virgin Atlantic case studies demonstrate the significant return on investment that biometric measurement can bring to the research, design and implementation of CX initiatives. Our programmes have delivered improved sales and profit; higher customer satisfaction, loyalty and repurchase; larger spend by customer and greater frequency of purchase. We also see improvements in staff satisfaction measures, reduced sickness absence, higher productivity and lower staff turnover.

Champion science in customer research

The principles of our scientific approach are applicable across all products and services – both B2B and B2C – as our latest diverse projects highlight. For example: testing different store formats for a discount supermarket; the review of an automated, instore sales process for a high street electronics retailer; the design of new mass passenger transport seating; quantifying the commercial impact of a differentiated CX for a global construction company; and implementing a new integrated customer and employee experience for one of the UK’s leading housing associations.

On the flipside of course, no-one ever got fired for doing a customer survey and most people feel confident in presenting a business improvement to their board with some reassuring ‘numbers’ backing it up – perhaps because a healthy percentage of respondents ‘said’ they would buy such a product or service, or rated it highly on average on a scale of 1 to 10. Conventional customer research is also fairly cheap, although if it leads you down a path of activity that’s in the opposite direction to customers’ real behaviour, I’d argue it will cost you an awful lot more in the long run. What we’re championing here is the use of science – and by that I mean the scientific method – to provide solid, substantiated and objective evidence for the business decisions you take. Don’t guess or rely on hearsay, but build a case for change, improvement or transformation based on a hypothesis tested and proven through experimentation and you will see a significant return on your investment.

Over the coming few weeks, we’ll be reviewing the various physiological and neuroscientific methods for understanding customer and employee behaviour and suggesting practical ways they can be used to help improve experiences and deliver significant commercial returns.

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