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Kristen Hampshire


[Cover Story] Data Digging: A guide to what makes customers tick

Cover Story

Customer experience surveys and target market analytics that dig deep and reveal The Why — what makes clients tick (and ticked off) — can guide strategic business decisions.

November 24, 2014

Who are these people, anyway? And, what do they want from us?

Blunt questions to ask about your customer base, but when is the last time you stopped to seriously consider who buys from you — and why? Sure, you know where they live and how much they spend each year on your pest control services. Your database tells you that much.

You know what they purchase, but do you know why?

Stopping to ask this question about your customers — performing a demographic deep dive and dispatching focused customer experience surveys — could uncover a surprising portrait of the typical customer and what motivates him to call your company, spend his dollars and stay with you (or switch). Yes, the analytics provide data—total spend, etc. — but taking a human experience approach to examining your customer base will reveal behaviors and motivators, a.k.a., The Why.

And when businesses understand The Why, they can make strategic marketing and operational decisions that impact the bottom line. Take Griffin Pest Solutions, Kalamazoo, Mich., which abandoned its modern, loud “Saw a Bug!” marketing campaign after a rigorous customer analysis.

“It was without a doubt a great campaign, but we weren’t running it for us, it was for our customers,” says Pamela Blauvelt, director of operations. And, she says, “We made a horrible mistake.” Michigan is not New York or L.A. or Atlanta. The message that works in other markets didn’t hit home in Kalamazoo.

Blauvelt and the team “were crushed — really crushed,” when they got the marketing data back and realized that their campaign was targeting the wrong audience. The company learned their customers were not young families, but instead mostly grandparents with pets and Rustbelt Retirees.

Now, Griffin’s tagline is, “No Ifs, Ants or Bugs, Guaranteed.”

“We are not hip anymore, we are much more low-key,” Blauvelt says. “The imagery is more grandkids on a lawn, more pet-friendly.” This appeals to their Andy Griffith audience. “We are getting more phone calls and seeing improvement with much more traffic,” Blauvelt says. “Our message before was probably off-putting to the people who are our primary customers.”

Working the Data.

Griffin Pest had strong assumptions about its customer base. After all, the company has been in business since 1929. It’s not like they were operating with their eyes closed. But, the Michigan economy had changed since 2008, which initially prompted the demographic/market study, Blauvelt says.

“It had been a long time since we had really done any market research on our customers,” she said. “We started to see gains in employment and gains in the economy here, and we wanted to know if things had changed dramatically and what our residential customers really looked like.”

So, Griffin Pest conducted customer research to get some answers. The company enlisted in its GPS routing software provider, which has a market research department, to conduct the study. They started the process in October 2013 and had data in their hands in January, redesigned their marketing campaign and launched it by April 2014.

“I think we way over-judged how long the process would take and how much it would cost,” Blauvelt says, adding that the fee for the “demographic dig” and market analysis was less than $1,000. (On the high end, research can cost up to five figures.)

“Very small (pest control) firms can take advantage of this type of service now,” Blauvelt says of tapping into telling demographic/target market data. “If you have your computer with your database, you can do this.”

Click Here to Complain

Give customers a mechanism to voice concerns without sending a survey or conducting target market analysis. Simply add a button to your company website, suggests Jack Semler of Readex Research.

If you have a problem, click here.

“Give customers a way to respond or complain quickly if there is an issue,” he says, reasoning that companies provide phone numbers to call for new service, so why not publicize a contact number to express concerns? “Customers are spending money with your firm — they want to have a good relationship with you, so provide a tool for them to express concerns if they feel a need to do so.” — K.H.

Gathering the data is one thing. What companies do with the demographic data brings value to the information. Target market data, when executed in a business strategy, can be a game-changer for businesses. It’s all about acting on the results.

“What’s really important is to capture information that is going to be actionable,” says Jack Semler, president and CEO of Readex Research. “Look at (customer analytics) as what can we capture, and what should we capture that will help us better understand who the customer is and what we may need to do differently to keep them happy and coming back again.”

In the case of Griffin, they needed to talk to customers differently — to present a different image than the metropolitan, edgy campaign the firm had launched. The marketing team had fallen in love with the messaging; but the “Saw a Bug!” tied with flashy images didn’t speak at all to their agriculturally based clients. “They don’t want glitzy,” Blauvelt says.

“We made a mistake, and therein lies an opportunity,” she continues. “Thankfully, we have been able to really hit some home runs now that we know who we are targeting.”

With a new marketing campaign — along with social media messaging, since Griffin learned that its target customers love their iPads — business is increasing already this year, Blauvelt says. “We expect it will take two years to really see results,” she adds, noting that the next phase is to educate technicians what the data dig revealed about customers, and how they can better communicate with homeowners. (“Our employees are more diverse than our customer base is,” Blauvelt said — another surprise concerning the company’s homogeneous client universe.)

Semler adds, regarding customer analytics and customer experience surveys, “Make sure you listen to your customers and that you’re prepared to act.”

Listening at All Levels.

Customer insight is a company’s greatest competitive advantage. In a global study of 1,500 CEOs conducted by IBM, CEOs saw lack of customer insight as their biggest deficit in managing the complexity of business. They said “customer obsession” was the most critical leadership trait.

At Plunkett’s Pest Control in Fridley, Minn., dedicated marketing associates for the residential and commercial business sectors focus on understanding exactly what clients value — and what they could care less about. Plunkett’s is keenly focused on hearing firsthand from customers what matters most.

A marketing lead rides along with service technicians and talk to customers in the field. They ask: Why did you call us? Why are you on contract with us? What is important to you? What do you like about what we do, and what do you think we can improve?”

Sometimes, what customers want is surprising.

For one, Plunkett’s has learned that an aspect of their business they consider a competitive edge — technician training — is not a deciding factor for whether clients will do business with the company. “People don’t really care how much time and energy we spend training our technicians to be the very best pest professionals—they assume the technicians we send to their houses are well trained,” says Stacy O’Reilly, president.

“So, describing to our clients how well-trained and how many hours of continuing education our technicians get doesn’t matter to them,” she continues. “They want to know: Can you be here Wednesday? Yes? Then, fine. (Stop talking.)”

5 Questions to Ask on a Customer Survey

You can send out a customer survey that’s pages long — but who will take the time to fill it out? These five questions give businesses a fast, deep dive into customers’ minds to find out what they think.

  1. How do you feel about the service we provided in each of these areas? (Please select one box for each – yes/no/unsure.) Expand list to include response time, scheduling, promptness, service, quality and follow-up.
  2. Please rate your overall satisfaction with our company. (0-10 scale)
  3. How likely would you be to come back to our company when you have a future pest control need? (rate 0-10)
  4. Based on the experience you had, how likely would you be to recommend us to a colleague or a friend who has a pest control need? (0-10 scale)
  5. If you answered “no” or “unsure” in Q1 or rated us 8 or lower in Q2-Q4, please tell us why. We’d also appreciate any general feedback about how we can improve our service. (Provide a space for written customer feedback.)

Another nugget: Customers care about organic practices — until they want those pests gone now. “Everyone cares about minimizing pesticides and we should be concerned about that, but I’ll tell you, a huge percentage of customers are saying, ‘Just get rid of the rats,’” O’Reilly says. “Or, ‘I’ll be organic tomorrow, but today just kill the carpenter ants.’”

Commercial customers want consistency: same technician, same day a week, same time. Residential customers want speed and specificity: a commitment that you’ll show up ASAP, and within minutes of the promised (exact) timeframe, no earlier or later.

Understanding what clients want, and delivering, goes beyond customer service as a function of making people happy. It helps a business run leaner, O’Reilly points out. “There is a lean mentality from the quality arena that eliminates activities that do not add value to the client, and focuses every day on continuous improvement,” she explains.

“The technician, in the end, is the person who listens to exactly what clients want,” O’Reilly says. “And, delivering personal service is only possible if our organization is listening at all levels and modifying what we do based on what we hear from customers broadly, then specifically.”

Behavior modification is a critical aspect of acting on target market data. Once you find out The Why, next you process that knowledge within your organization and formulate actionable tasks to improve customer experience.

At Plunkett’s, technicians are given the tools to better communicate with customers because, the company knows, “communication drives more client satisfaction or dissatisfaction than anything to do with killing a bug by a long shot,” O’Reilly says.

Communication in the field begins with the sales process. “Our best sales people are the best listeners,” O’Reilly says. Technicians are trained to ask open-ended questions to inspire customers to talk about their expectations and what they want from a pest control provider.

Then, technicians are coached by Plunkett’s to verbalize, in simple terms, what services they will perform on properties. This is how the company shows the value of employee training without actually telling clients that’s a Plunkett’s priority.

Going a step further, Plunkett’s provides a business writing class to all of its technicians. This gives them confidence to write well-scripted comments on service receipts. It also shows customers that Plunkett’s is listening to client requests. During four, six-hour classes, technicians learn how to write professionally for business. “Our guys valued that and learned a lot, and they got more efficient and better at communicating overall,” O’Reilly says.

Plunkett’s took a problem/solution approach to prevent a potential customer experience problem. The company knows communication can be a challenge, so training technicians to do this better mitigates the risk of “upsets” in the field.

In essence, Plunkett’s and Griffin took a modern approach to customer analytics that the Harvard Business Review calls “sensemaking.” It’s a human-sciences approach to analyzing the customer base. Problems are examined from the client’s perspective, followed by collecting data, identifying patterns, creating key business insights and then building a business impact — translating information into initiatives.

Semler says beyond demographic data collection, the customer experience survey — when properly executed — can spearhead this progressive process. “Connecting with the customer is the only way to understand whether you are building loyalty and retention,” he says.


If target market analytics is the spotlight, then customer experience surveys are the laser. Now you know “who” your customer is, in terms of age, buying habits, what turns them off and on from a demographic standpoint. So next, ask your customers (or former clients) a handful of specific questions to find out whether your company is effective.

“Customer experiences come in all shapes and sizes,” says Semler, noting that Readex works for the four largest, most renowned customer experience companies in the United States, aside from surveys it conducts on its own for entities.

Semler says you can ask five questions and gain a strong pulse of why customers stick with you, and why they leave. (See related article at right.) “The customer experience survey should be short and sweet, and there are two reasons for that,” he says. “It increases the likelihood that someone will actually fill out the survey. Remember, the purpose of the survey is to connect with the customer and find out, ‘How am I doing with you?’ and ask questions that are actionable for your business.”

Who gets the survey? You can cull through your database and send the survey to specific groups: Customers that spend X dollars per year; customers who have purchased services from you in the last five years; customers who no longer do business with you, and so on.

Connecting with former clients can reveal important information about the way you do business and how you could do it better, Semler points out. Also, by asking the targeted questions, a business can spot “the customer who is in jeopardy,” Semler says. He’s talking about the customer who’s still on board but would drop you in a hot minute.

“What if you could save 10 to 30 customers over the course of the year through a survey process?” Semler asks, saying the form (online or by mail) gives customers an opportunity to raise their hands and say, “I’ve got an issue.”

“That helps build loyalty and keep customers, it helps the bottom line, and it helps your sales team focus on bringing in new customers rather than putting out fires,” Semler says.

At Buffalo Exterminating, a focus group process along with target market analysis has helped the company make big decisions (open a new branch) and operational moves (calls before service). And, importantly, it learned that assumptions the firm was making about its customers were spot on so they could continue with their media direction.

The target “lifestyle groups” for Buffalo: families with young children and the older generation.

“You start out making business decisions based on your gut feeling, but as you grow, the dollars you spend get bigger and you want to make sure you are spending in the right place,” says Joanne Tank, chief financial officer.

Buffalo Exterminating ultimately opened a new branch after getting feedback that customers perceived the company would not travel to their location. “When we put the branch there with our name on the building and our trucks, that did a lot,” Tank says. “(Based on customer analytics), we knew ahead of time that the customers we were trying to reach were already in that market.”

Finding out The Why — why customers from that particular market were not calling — helped Buffalo Exterminating justify that their physical presence in that market would solve the problem. That’s sensemaking at work: Buffalo collected the data, analyzed the problem, created business insights and developed a plan to address the issue.

“We looked at the attitudes of our customers and focused on those points that are important to them,” Tank says.

If you ask customers what they think, be prepared to respond with a solution, Semler says. Close that customer analytics/experience survey loop by taking action in the business.

“There is nothing worse than making a statement to a service provider, or registering a complaint, and then nothing happens,” Semler says. “Then what does the customer think? ‘They don’t care. I knew it.’

“Listen, and be prepared to act.”


The author, a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio, is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. She can be reached at

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