Drive to Reimagine

Customer research - The story of the elephant & the blind men

Alex Genov
last edited on
November 21, 2023
4-5 mins

Table of contents

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Holistic Person Understanding

So you want to be a customer-centric organization ...

One of the most pronounced and powerful trends in business nowadays is the use of customer research and data to make well-informed decisions.

As a professional researcher and a perpetual student of human behavior and emotions, I celebrate this trend! What this means is that business owners, the C-suite, business stakeholders, and all decisions-makers in the hallways of business power have adopted the empirical method of decision-making. The alternative is, of course making decisions based on intuition, gut feel, experience, inertia, status quo. In other words, Empiricism ("How do you know?") has replaced Rationalism ("I think, therefore I am") as a philosophy and practice in business decision-making.

This is all great! Now business practices - from lean startups to huge corporations - involve doing research, often lots of it.

Customer research
Customer research

Market Research, User Research, Web Analytics, Oh My!

The positive development discussed above has brought about a new set of challenges: in a nutshell, how research is done and how we approach understanding customers.

Here I will not discuss the pros, cons, pitfalls, and best practices of individual research methods. I will also not compare the merits of classes of research such as Market Research, User Research, Usability, Web Analytics, Data Mining and so on.

Instead, I will discuss the detrimental effects of corporate politics and organizational silos on how we understand our customers as whole individuals and why is it business-critical to do so.

Territoriality Among The Lower Species

Cartoonists, along with bartenders and barbers, are among the best Psychologists out there. Cartoonist Gary Larson distills the idea of territoriality in this piece:

Territoriality Among The Lower Species
Territoriality Among The Lower Species

Territoriality in Higher Species

Now we know that sparrows are territorial ... What about business folks , who are admittedly a much higher species than sparrows?

Behold the almighty Org Chart - the most advanced territory-marking business tool to date:

organizational chart
Organizational chart

You may be wondering what I have against this benign-looking schematic made of boxes, lines, and names-in-boxes?

A couple of things. First, I believe it to be the main root cause and major source of all office politics, i.e. climbing the proverbial corporate ladder, which is a zero-sum game - limited resources (one box, many candidates), winners and losers and so on. Second, and more crucially, it leads to a fatal distortion in how we understand our customers, who are the sole reason businesses exist.

Next, I will elaborate on what I mean by "fatal distortion."

The Blind Men and the Elephant

What is the real danger of silo-ed organizations when it comes to customer research, understanding, and empathy?

Imagine we asked the same question of researchers in different silos of a large organization:

"Who is our customer?"

Here is what we will likely get for answers get from researchers across different organizational silos ...

customer research teams
Customer Research Teams

The above picture calls to mind the fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant:

blind men and the elephant
Blind Men And The Elephant

A group of blind men (or men in the dark) touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement.

The resulting disconnect in how the organization approached understanding the customer is detrimental not only to customer experience but ultimately to the business bottom line. At the end of the day, nobody at such an organization has a holistic, deep understanding of customers as people. That cannot be good for marketers, designers, executives, sales folks, etc. ... to say nothing of the customers.

"Is there a better way?"

I though you'd never ask!

Holistic Person-understanding in Business

What is the big idea?

When it comes to understanding our customers, we do away with the org-chart way of thinking. Let's not be territorial like the sparrows ...


As a result, the research approach will change from silos to a truly customer-centric view:

customer-centric research
Customer-centric Research

Company Culture Matters

So how do we get from here to there?

One key transformation which needs to happen has to do with company culture.

Zappos has adopted Self-organization and Holacracy, which does away with traditional managerial roles and titles, organizational silos, and org charts. At Zappos now, people self-organize around the work, at the same time aligning with the overall Company vision and direction.

The transition at Zappos has been possible because for many years now Zappos has operated based on a set of Core Values, which encourage individuality, learning, initiative, creativity, and humility.

Zappos holacracy
Zappos holacracy

Practical Takeaways

  • Understand the person, not the “shopper” or the "user"
  • No silos when it comes to customer understanding
  • Complementary methods
  • Inform the business as a whole
  • Culture matters!

This article was originally published here.

Bonus - Here's a good article that highlights the 3 types of customer research surveys!

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Alex Genov

Alex‌ ‌Genov‌ ‌is‌ ‌the‌ ‌‌Head‌ ‌of‌ ‌Customer‌ ‌Research‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌Zappos‌ ‌Family‌ ‌of‌ ‌Companies.‌ ‌He‌ ‌is‌ ‌‌an‌ ‌‌Experienced‌ ‌customer‌ ‌research‌ ‌professional‌ ‌who‌ ‌applies‌ ‌his‌ ‌Experimental‌ ‌
Social‌ ‌Psychology‌ ‌background‌ ‌and‌ ‌his‌ ‌passion‌ ‌for‌ ‌research,‌ ‌design,‌ ‌and‌ ‌innovation‌ ‌to‌ ‌solving‌ ‌important‌ ‌customer‌ ‌and‌ ‌business‌ ‌problems.‌

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