Staying close to customers despite the social distance

Updated: 6 days ago

How can organisations even hope to stay connected with customers when they're physically distanced due to a global pandemic? Our Analyst Holly Marsh has some ideas...


The Challenge


Ethnographer Chloe Evans argues for the importance of ‘Being There’ to really understand a person’s behaviour. It’s true that sharing space with a customer, viewing their habits and watching their behaviours, can be the most insightful way to do research. This is because attitudes differ from behaviours. In other words, what people tell you they do can often be different from what they actually do.

For example, someone might tell you that they’re an extremely healthy eater, but it’s not until you accompany them on their weekly food shop that you realise they stock up on sweets and chocolate for ‘girls night on Friday.’


Similarly, if you ask a group of people if they care about the environment, the chances are that 80% will say they do. However, it’s highly likely that the majority of the group won’t be willing to give up air travel to help slow climate change.

‘Being there’ is a huge part of customer immersion we do at The Foundation. It’s firstly ‘Asking People’ – so speaking to them, ideally face to face. It’s also ‘Observing People’ – this means seeing them immersed in their own lives and watching their behaviours, rather than just asking them about their attitudes. Thirdly, we immerse ourselves and our clients in the customer experience by ‘Serving People’ – really understanding how customers experience your product or service by connecting with your frontline colleagues.

However, since March, COVID-19 has meant organisations are further away from their customers than ever before. The ability to carry out this kind of ‘Ask, Observe, Serve’ customer research has been eliminated.

So, the challenge is: how do we stay connected with customers when there’s so much physical distance?



The answer

Ask People

You can still ‘Ask People’ by setting up customer calls over the phone and on video. While it’s not the same as a face-to-face conversation, looking people in the eye on Zoom and vice versa means both parties know who they’re interacting with, where they are and what they look like. It helps the customer feel more like they’re talking to someone they know rather than a disconnected voice, meaning they’re more likely to feel open to sharing their thoughts and feelings.

Another benefit of video call is that you get a small glimpse into a customer’s life – whether it’s the snippet of their house you see in the background, or where they’ve decided to position themselves in that house, or the various family members who interrupt during the call.

Traditional phone calls can also be useful for customer connection. Some people feel less self conscious when they know they can’t be seen, and this method also allows the interviewer more freedom to take notes during the conversation.



Observe People

While you can’t physically enter into a customer’s space to see how they behave, you can still ‘Observe People’ virtually.

One way of doing this is to set up an online customer research panel, giving a group of customers daily or weekly tasks to complete via a digital platform.

The first step to doing this well is to recruit great customers. Think about what customer groups you want to find out more about, and then recruit a range of different customers within those groups to ensure you have diversity of experience and opinion – we’ve found between 10 and 30 customers work well on an online panel.

Customers are more likely to be honest about their answers if they know who they’re talking to, so when you can’t build a rapport in person, try to create a trusted environment through your interactions. Start with an introductory call for each customer, so they know they’re connecting with real people rather than just a digital interface. Ask different members of your team to adopt 1 or 2 customers each, to follow them and champion them throughout the process and comment on their responses on the panel.

Getting the most out of a research panel comes from designing tasks that uncover the behaviours, biases and unspoken beliefs that we’d usually get through the ‘observe’ part of the research.

The tasks could be…

  • Letter to your former self: Ask customers to write a letter to their 17 year old selves, telling their former self what to look forward to, what not to do, and what not to worry about

  • House tour: Ask customers to capture a video tour of their home and talk about their biggest lockdown purchases

  • Video rant: Give customers the opportunity to produce a 1-minute rant about a service or industry

  • Love letter: Ask customers to write a love letter to their favourite brand, outlining what they love about them and why

  • Roving reporter: Ask customers to interview a friend or family member about their thoughts on a certain subject

Overall, keep the tasks interesting and creative for both you and the customers. Ensure that they vary in media, asking for a combination of video recordings, pictures or written tasks. Accompanying them with daily or weekly video diaries means you get an ongoing insight into their lives, and you can get real-time reactions to societal or political developments (e.g. Lockdown 2.0).



Serve People

You can still get close to your frontline without being there in person. Get a better understanding of how you ‘Serve People’ by speaking to your colleagues. Ask them what’s happening, what’s working and what isn’t. Work out what the common customer problems are and what support your team needs to fix them.

You could mystery shop your own service, online or on the phone. Just get to know your company really well, from the customers’ point of view rather than from the inside.



So despite being physically distanced from your customers, there are still many ways you can get a great insight into their lives and the problems that you might be able to help with.

We’ve even uncovered some unexpected benefits of doing things this way:

  • Using research panels means we can stay close to customers over a longer period of time than we could in person

  • Customer created content has longevity and can create lasting impact in an organisations (especially videos and pictures)

  • Customer created content is arguably closer to the truth because it can’t be as easily misinterpreted by researchers

  • Customers have more control over how they convey their information (we can learn a lot about people just from how they choose to present themselves)


So no more lockdown excuses – there’s no time like the present to get close to your customers.

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