Tracking Customers in Real Time.
By Vijay Dandapani
Wednesday, 19th September 2012
The website Financial Channel reports that a recent survey released by Hampton Hotels uncovered that one in three Americans (33%) claims they are a 'completely different person' on the weekends than they are during the week.  

The survey, which delves into consumers' weekend mindset, shows that more positive, outgoing and friendly personality traits emerge for most Americans during the weekend. 

The headline as well as the survey's findings are reasonably informative if not hugely revelatory. That people tend to let their hair down on weekends is something that has been known ever since the idea of a Sabbath day was mooted.

It is not clear what actionable information can be had from the results of this survey. What remains as the holy grail for marketers is the ability to track customer attitudes and behavior in real time.

A paper in the Harvard Business Review Magazine September issue attempts to address the preceding issue. The authors of the article note that traditionally executives have relied on a combination of quantitative data and qualitative insights to identify customer attitudes and behavior.

But according to them the limitation to the tradtional approach is that they end up relying on customers' memories which tend to "decay rapidly". What's worse is that "even genuine memories are often biased by context: If a customer has made a major purchase, she's more likely to remember her experience of the transaction positively in order to feel good about the purchase."

Real time tracking (RET) seeks to overcome some of the foregoing lacunae. The limitation to RET is the lack of tools to do. Thus far a principal method used is "ethnographic research in which researchers shadow individual consumers and watch their behavior." That comes with a slew of other problems from being labor intensive and expensive to bias brought on by a customer's desire to please the researcher tracking him/her.

RET came about from a couple of "insights" per HBR.  Firstly, that  a market researcher can't easily follow customers around 24 hours a day, those customers' cell phones can, and unlike human observers, they don't sway people's perceptions of experiences. The second was that while the customer-company interaction occurs in thousands of ways,  only four principal factors matter: the brand involved, the type of touchpoint,  how the participant felt about the experience, and how persuasive it was. In other words, did it make the customer more inclined to choose the brand next time?

HBR and  and a market research agency MESH Planning developed a data collecting method keeping four areas in mind. Using an SMS survey that employed a mere 4 characters they culled data for their research while going over a comprehsive list of touchpoints over an extended period. The low output requirement of customers nevertheless called for feedback and description of "encounters" with the brand and required the completion of a second survey to "uncover how attitudes have changed as a result of her encounters with the brands (being surveyed)".

RET data derived from the survey was able to tell, among other things, where touchpoint chains were broken meaning brands could direct their dollars to steer customers towards where spending was effective. The researchers acknowledge that "RET findings in real time is easier in theory than in practice, however. That's because RET covers the complete customer journey, which means the data it generates are useful to virtually every customer-facing part of a firm—from marketing communications and PR to operations and service delivery."

They also note that "RET enables companies to assess and respond in real time to customers' reactions to products, services, or branding efforts, it can play a central role in allowing customers to help design their own experiences with products.

As RET and tools like it emerge, we expect that marketing will cease to be a game of stimulus-response and will evolve into a continual process of cocreation." Clearly even a partial realization of these goals envisaged for RET will likely lead to companies continually achieving real time customer satisfaction.

Vijay is Chief Operating Officer and part-founder of Apple Core Hotels- a chain of 5 midtown Manhattan hotels offering value and comfort in the heart of the city. Member of the board of Directors - Hotel Association of New York.

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