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Market observation, Shanghai, China

Understanding the Customer Experience Through Immersion (PART 3)

If you have questions or want guidance on your path to discovering and improving the customer experience, please contact me: anthrodonnatx@gmail.com

CX is a hot topic today. To win in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, companies are investing time, energy, and money to better understand and improve the customer experience. And rightly so.

Yet, for those of us who work, day in and day out, on the marketing, development or design of a given product or service, it’s hard to have fresh eyes for the customer experience. Especially when we rarely get away from the office to connect with the customer or walk in their shoes.  

At the recent CX Talks Dallas (May 2018), I spoke to a group of CX professionals about how to better understand the customer experience by leveraging the method of Cultural Immersion.  As I explained to my listeners, nothing quite beats a cultural immersion for helping us get out of the office and into the shoes of the customer.

Immersion is a great way to observe, explore and discover the world beyond the office. It’s an effective method that any company can adopt to better understand the customer experience

Field Work Practices of Anthropologists

Cultural Immersion comes from the fieldwork practices of anthropologists and the hallmark research method of “participant-observation.” That’s when anthropologists go out “into the field” to observe, listen, and interact with people within their natural settings – where they live, work, and play, to obtain firsthand knowledge.  

It’s a purposeful method of “discovering the obvious” – seeing the people, places and things around us in a new light.

As a business anthropologist with a PhD in applied anthropology, I know a great deal about Cultural Immersion and how organizations and individuals can benefit from the experience. Since 1999, I’ve been designing Cultural Immersions for companies across industries, from big box retail, to packaged goods.

I’ve helped firms improve the customer experience, generate new product ideas, and most importantly, develop a deeper understanding of the customer.  

Immerse Yourself for Fresh Ideas

The business problem I’m trying to solve dictates the type of Cultural Immersion I create. Here’s an example. I developed a Cultural Immersion for a team of product developers and designers at a home goods firm located in a small town that was mostly white, upper middle class, and the employee base reflected that of the town. And, most of the team were men.

The company’s objective was to become more customer-centric and to meet the changing needs of a diverse global customer through relevant product design.

So, I developed a Cultural Immersion that got them out of the office, got them out of their comfort zone and allowed them to walk in the shoes of a diverse global customer, without having to break the travel budget.

How can you have such an experience on a tight budget?  Simple. We drove two hours to a nearby urban center that had a large ethnic enclave. With over 70% foreign born immigrants, this community had a very different demographic profile from that of the company town. 

On the day of the immersion, the team brought pencils, pens, paper, and cameras for snapping photos. They brought an observation guide that I developed that provided a structure of what to see and do during their immersion.

We spent an entire day, experiencing the sights and sounds around us. They walked up and down streets and alleyways. They had lunch. They drank coffee. They shopped in stores, visited the local pharmacy, post office and library. And spoke to people that they met.

We saw traditional colors of red and gold and culturally significant symbols found throughout town. In stores, we observed a large variety of appliances and tools that served the local cultural food traditions—electric hot pots, steamers, kettles and rice cookers, and all the various wooden, metal or plastic accessories needed to cook a traditional meal.

The experience generated many insights, challenged a few long-held assumptions about the customer, and inspired fresh ideas for product design.

One insight stands out in my memory. While we were walking about, observing life in the community, we came upon the local fresh food markets where many stalls and tables were set up to sell dried food products, fresh produce, seafood, and meats. Among the shoppers, we observed many men, young and old, who were busy purchasing food items for commercial and home use.

This observation served as a necessary reminder to the team to always challenge our assumptions about who we think the global customer may be—in this case, it’s not just women who are buying (and preparing) food. We must design experiences in store and in the kitchen that can meet the needs and interests of both men and women.  

The team returned to the office, tired, but inspired with new design ideas, tapping into the sights and sounds of what they experienced during their immersion.

Now, How About You?

Why not try an immersion for yourself? Tap into your own inner explorer. Get out of the office and into “the field” where people outside the office are living, playing, doing. Keep an open mind as you observe the world around you.

Give yourself permission to see this world in a new light, with fresh eyes. Turn a familiar place, like your local coffee shop, into an exotic locale filled with strange people, places, and things to discover…

And who knows? You might just uncover the next big idea for your business!

In the first and second installments of this series of articles, I reviewed the 4 Essential Rules for a successful immersion and the 6 Basic Steps to follow to get you out of the office and into the field.

In this article, I’ll share a couple anecdotes from previous immersions that serve as a reminder of why the rules and the steps are so important to follow.

In one case, I designed and facilitated a Cultural Immersion taking place in a retail setting. A key decision maker participating in the immersion confessed that she went into the exercise with a bad attitude and a closed mind. As an expert in the business, she assumed she already knew everything she needed to know about the retail customer experience, and believed that the immersion was going to be a complete “waste of my time.” However, once she participated in the immersion, she realized that all her assumptions were wrong. By walking in the shoes of a customer, she was surprised and a bit shocked that the customer experience had so much room for improvement. During the debrief and ideation session that followed the immersion, she admitted to a roomful of colleagues that by participating in this cultural immersion, she gained a valuable perspective and that the experience was truly worth the time and effort. 

In another case, I crafted a Cultural Immersion for a product development team seeking fresh ideas for their business. To get them to stretch their perspectives, the immersion purposefully investigated the customer experience several degrees outside of their product category. In the planning stages, it was difficult for some team members to express interest and curiosity about product categories so unlike their own.  Several failed to see the relevance of the cultural immersion to their business, and chose not to participate in the activity. Those team members who did participate did so with an open mind and a stance of childlike curiosity about the world around them. During the debrief and ideation session that followed the Cultural Immersion, their excitement and enthusiasm was palpable and continued to grow as the many new ideas for their business started rolling in.

In both cases, the cultural immersion and ideation session was deemed a great success by all participants. Yet, at various stages during the experience, the two teams resisted following the 4 Essential Rules. In case you don’t remember, here again are the rules:


  1. Maintain an open mind (and heart)
  2. Be curious about the world around you
  3. Think like a child
  4. Park your organizational orthodoxies at the door.


Sometimes, the most difficult rule to follow is #4, overcoming organizational orthodoxy. This struggle was most apparent once the teams reached the Debrief and Ideation session that follows the Cultural Immersion, Basic Step #6 (the last step in an immersion). During the ideation session, both teams were often tempted to prematurely kill new ideas that emerged due to the “we never,” “we can’t,” and “we tried that before and it failed” mantra that surely kills innovation across many firms today.

In my experience, some find it difficult to maintain the mindset that “all things are possible” when it comes to transforming ideas generated from the field immersion into concrete business action.  Why does this happen? Corporate cultures sometimes limit themselves and their employees, in what they can or cannot do, who they are, and where they are going. To apply fresh eyes and new ideas to the business, team members must feel empowered by their organization to do so.  

Copyright 2017 @ ROMEO ANTHROPOLOGICAL CONSULTING. All rights reserved.

Donna Maria Romeo, PhD.

July 24, 2018

"Obvious" Questions & Thinking Like a Child


There really is no better way to understand the customer experience of your brand, product, or service, than to "play the anthropologist." Leave the office, go out into the field—to places where people socialize, shop, live, work and play—and immerse yourself in the culture of your customer. You might be surprised by how much you and your team can gain!

Cultural immersion is a great way to explore the world around us: the people, places, things, events and activities, both strange and familiar. Importantly, it can help us see those bits and pieces around us that are often overlooked and unobserved because they are so close to home. Anthropologists call this, “discovering the obvious.”

As the late, great, Yogi Berra once said, “you can observe a lot by watching.” Observation, and in particular, participant-observation, is the hallmark research method of anthropology. What is it? It’s where the researcher goes out to natural settings to learn about people and their behaviors through active listening, observing, interacting, and participating.

Although professional anthropologists and other social scientists have worked long and hard over many years to perfect the art of participant-observation, I believe everyone can benefit from trying their hand at this research method for an eye-opening immersive experience.


There are a few ground rules to follow and steps to take to help make the most out of your immersive experience. In part 1 of this 3 part article, I’ll begin with what I call my “4 Essential Rules." I'll review my “6 Basic How-To Steps” in a second follow-up article. And, in my third installment, I'll share a few examples from past immersions that illustrate why the rules are so important to keep in mi
nd.

Here are my 4 Essential Rules for a successful immersion:


  • Rule #1: Maintain an open mind (and heart). The process can only work if you are open and receptive to all that you see, hear, and feel. Allow yourself to fully participate in the experience, with all your senses. Think of yourself as an explorer, on a path of discovery. By adopting a discovery mindset, you will see the world with fresh eyes that can even turn familiar places, like your local coffee shop, into exotic locales filled with new experiences.


  • Rule # 2: Be curious about the world around you. Everything and anything you see, hear, or learn can be relevant and potentially ground breaking for your business, for product and service development. And you will not know what is relevant and important until later, after you’ve had a chance to digest and analyze your insights. So--gather first, sift later.


  • Rule # 3: Think like a child. Children don’t make assumptions or claim to be experts, and they are fearless in asking questions. They are not afraid of asking “obvious” questions, because they don’t assume to already know it all and are not afraid of looking silly in front of others.


  • Rule #4: Park your organizational orthodoxies at the door. This is sometimes difficult to do, especially if you work for an organization that is heavy on the “no”/ “but” and light on the “yes”/ “and.” Orthodoxies can limit the way we view the world and can inhibit our thinking.  



If you have questions or want guidance on your path to discovering and improving the customer experience, please contact me: anthrodonnatx@gmail.com

Donna Maria Romeo, PhD.

June 5, 2017

Understanding the Customer Experience Through Immersion (PART 2)

RECENT ARTICLES

Copyright 2017 @ ROMEO ANTHROPOLOGICAL CONSULTING. All rights reserved.

If you have questions or want guidance on your path to discovering and improving the customer experience, please contact me: anthrodonnatx@gmail.com

A cameo craftsman, Naples, Italy

Here are my 6 Basic “How-To” Steps for an immersion exercise that will get you out of the office and into the field right away. 


Step 1:  Chose a location for your immersion. This location is based on the topical area you want to explore. It can be about a product or service, a particular target customer, or a concept.  For example, perhaps you work for a manufacturer of high­-end home goods and want to better understand the concept of “pampering.” Based on this topic, you decide to visit a day spa. Why? Spas are all about pampering. While at the spa, you’ll be both observer and participant –you will listen and observe, tuning in and interacting with people, places, objects, activities and total environment. You’ll also partake of spa treatments so that you have your own personal experience.

Step #2: Look and act the part. For an immersion activity, it’s important to fit into your surroundings. By being unobtrusive, it’s easier to observe the world around you. So, for your spa visit, show up wearing casual clothes. Be ready to don a fluffy robe and slippers. And try to relax!

Step #3: Park all your distractions at the door. Immersion is a highly active and physical process. Some people find it difficult and tiring to maintain their focus for extended periods of time. Clear your mind, focus on the experience, and try to keep your use of technological devices to a minimum.

Step #4: Follow an observation guide. The simplest guide will document people, places, things, events, and activities. It will also differentiate between what you objectively see and what you subjectively experience as participant-observer. It’s critical to keep the two things separate.


  • Observing objectively demands an open mind (Rule #1), free from value judgment and assumptions (Rule #3). You describe exactly what you see without the subjective value filter. Using the spa example, if you see an older man or woman sitting alone, if you describe this person as “looking lonely,” that’s not actually something you’ve observed. Rather, it’s your personal interpretation of what you are seeing.


  • It’s OK, and actually very useful, to document your own personal thoughts, feelings, experiences, and beliefs, as long as you keep these in a separate section in your notes designated for this purpose.


Step #5: Take ample notes. You will absolutely forget everything you saw and heard within 10 minutes if you do not immediately jot it down. Sometimes, if I’m in a space that makes it feel really awkward to take notes, I find a private place to do so.


  • Bring a small note pad for your observations. It’s also helpful to bring a favorite pencil or pen for free hand sketching and mapping of what you see.


  • Create a page just for counting and listing—people, objects, activities


  • Observe and take note of all that you see, hear, and feel with all your senses—taste, sound, smell, bodily response.


  • Observe from both “wide” and “narrow” perspectives. First, observe the big picture. And then, focus on a particular place, person, object, event, or activity. You will be amazed at all the detail you can capture in just a few minutes.


  • After you’ve completed your immersion and returned to the office, type up all your notes. You’ll find that by doing so, you will recall a few things you didn’t catch in your note book.


Step #6: Follow up your immersion with a debrief and ideation session with your team. Share your experiences with others, including your personal thoughts and feelings. Analyze your observations—the insights you’ve gained from the immersion—and then determine how these learnings can best be applied to your business. And remember to keep an open mind on what insights and ideas may be deemed relevant for your business. Schedule this session as soon as possible after the immersion so that you won’t forget what you’ve learned in the field.

From participating in your own immersive experience, you just might find that you’ve returned to the office with fresh ideas, greater empathy for the customer, and a deeper understanding of a brand, product, or service experience by walking in the shoes of others. 

Donna Maria Romeo, PhD.

August 26, 2017

Why Empathy Matters Today 

Donna Maria Romeo, PhD.

April 19, 2018

Copyright 2017 @ ROMEO ANTHROPOLOGICAL CONSULTING. All rights reserved.

If you have questions or want guidance on your path to discovering and improving the customer experience, please contact me: anthrodonnatx@gmail.com

Copyright 2017 @ ROMEO ANTHROPOLOGICAL CONSULTING. All rights reserved.

If you have questions or want guidance on your path to discovering and improving the customer experience, please contact me: anthrodonnatx@gmail.com

Understanding the Customer Experience Through Immersion (PART 1)

If you have questions or want guidance on your path to discovering and improving the customer experience, please contact me: anthrodonnatx@gmail.com

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of conducting a half-day “Changing Mindsets” RAC Workshop for a small group of dynamic women representing a variety of disciplines, including marketing, HR, and executive training. The workshop content included an overview of some core concepts and methods from the fields of anthropology and human centered design.

One of the most popular topics my workshop covered, that generated a great deal of lively and thoughtful discussion, pertained to empathy and the “empathy gap” that some believe is increasing not only within the workplace but also within our larger society today. Workshop participants expressed a keen interest and felt need for an even deeper dive on this important and timely, topic.

What, exactly, is empathy?

One of my favorite definitions comes from the Empathy Library (http://empathylibrary.com): “Empathy is the imaginative act of stepping into the shoes of another person and viewing the world from their perspective.” Having empathy enables us to tune in to both the feelings and viewpoint of another.

As an applied anthropologist, I believe empathy for others is a foundational cornerstone for most everything we do. Our hallmark research method—participant observation, where we immerse ourselves in the world of others, listening, observing, and interacting with people within the context of their daily lives, is heavily dependent on developing our empathy skills.

Like other professional listeners, anthropologists must quickly and effectively establish rapport with others. Building rapport is the job of seeking out those points of connection with another so that a level of mutual trust can be established.

Rapport building and empathy go hand in hand; when successful rapport is established, it’s easier for us to have empathy for one another. And, having empathy for others enables us to more effectively establish rapport.

Why does empathy matter?  

Empathy is invaluable in helping your organization to connect with and care about global customers—their diversity of lifestyle, perspectives, feelings, and experiences. In so doing, your organization can better anticipate, meet and exceed customer need while delivering a differentiated customer experience.

Empathy is also critical in assisting your organization to connect with and care about the global workforce—their diversity of lifestyle, perspectives, feelings, and experiences. In so doing, your organization can develop a stronger corporate culture. When employees feel listened to and cared for, it’s that much easier for them to care for and serve, the customer.

Can empathy be learned?

Although some people seem to develop empathy and rapport more easily than others, everyone can learn to become more empathetic and improve their rapport building skills.

Yet, having empathy for others is particularly challenging when we interact with people who, for whatever reason, we have deemed as being very “different” from ourselves or “difficult” to relate to. This is challenging even for us professional listeners.

For example, a few years ago, I was conducting ethnographic research amongst female casino patrons. These were women who visited casinos frequently, spending large sums of money on slot machines or table games every week. A few suffered from gambling addiction. Casino gambling as a pastime is not something I personally enjoy and goes against my frugal nature.

My challenge was to overcome my personal feelings about gambling so that I could feel empathy for the women participating in the study. And empathy is the special ingredient needed to establish rapport and build trusting relationships. Relationship building was critical to the success of the research. I knew I had to work to find a point of connection—fast.

So, how did I develop empathy and build relationships with women so “different” than myself?

I took the following 5 steps.

First, I worked to maintain an open mind.

Second, I viewed each woman as a person worthy of my time, attention, care, and interest.

Third, I asked about her life, her family, her hopes and dreams. I listened and observed, and gave her my undivided attention as I learned about who she was as a person that went beyond the superficial.

Fourth, I focused on getting beyond myself so that I could then view this person from her own perspective, free from me passing a value judgement on her life. Once I began to understand her perspective, I acknowledged this, without having to agree with or accept her perspective or life choices as my own. 

Fifth, I tried to creatively imagine what emotions she was feeling, and what it would be like to walk in her shoes. I searched for, and found, the point of human connection with her. In so doing, I established rapport and built a relationship of trust with her. In the end, I felt I had made a friend of someone who was surprisingly not so different than myself.

Next time you encounter someone whom you believe to be “different” than yourself or “difficult” to relate to, try taking these 5 steps to help strengthen your empathy muscle. 

Donna Maria Romeo, PhD.

July 20, 2017

Material Culture, San Antonio, TX

Have you ever found yourself talking to someone about a seemingly mundane subject, such as “your morning cup of coffee routine,” only to discover to your surprise that he or she doesn’t have a morning cup of coffee routine? As a die-hard coffee drinker, you learn in amazement that this other person relies on Diet Coke as a way to get their day going.  Coffee is just not something that is part of their lived experience.

So, why the surprise? Perhaps you’re surprised because you thought you knew this person yet suddenly realize that maybe you really don’t know him or her that well after all. Perhaps you’re surprised because you thought that since you both share the same job title at the same company, and live in the same small town, that you must also share the same lifestyle, habits, preferences, wants, dreams. Perhaps you’re surprised because your closely held assumption--that others in your social circle must also be “just like me,” doesn’t align with reality.

Anthropologists refer to the belief that everyone is motivated and behaves, thinks, feels, and sees the world in similar ways as “naïve realism.” It’s easy for us to make these assumptions, especially when we consider the people who live, work, shop, and play within our shared social circles and environments (e.g. the people in my neighborhood, the people at my office, the people at my church). Yet, are we really so sure that we know who these people are, and how they think and feel?  

I’ve seen this assumption applied many times to the people who buy brands, products, and services—the customer. Is the customer really “just like me,” sharing the same vision, hopes, dreams, wants, needs and perspectives on the world?  In answer to this question, I like to quote Mark Twain: “I’ve found that common sense ain’t so common.” What each of us holds as common knowledge, and truth, about the world may not be equally held by others. The old saying is true—you are not your customer.

As human beings, we do share much in common with one another, yet there are also meaningful differences between us. These differences emerge from our diverse socio-cultural, economic, educational, occupational, political, and religious backgrounds. Sometimes, these differences are subtle, yet remain important nonetheless.

Getting Beyond Our Assumptions

To really understand the perspective of others, we must first get beyond ourselves, moving beyond our own assumptions AND our own knowledge base (that is, our “common sense” and what we think we know about the world).

Anthropologists in a foreign culture must assume they know little, if anything, about this culture; they try to maintain an open mind, and adopt a position of childlike curiosity. There is a constant need for active observation, active listening, and active questioning. Trouble emerges when we stop asking the “obvious” questions and start assuming that we already understand the things we are observing and hearing. 

Young children don’t presume to hold prior knowledge about the world. They are not afraid to ask silly or “stupid” questions, and don’t worry about not looking like an expert. Thinking like a child can encourage us to ask the “obvious” questions that need asking. It can help us avoid making assumptions, and filling in the gaps with what we already think we know to be true.

Asking the obvious questions while maintaining a sense of childlike curiosity can truly open up the world to us—allowing us to see people, places, and things in a fresh light. One of the exercises included in the RAC Changing Mindsets workshop is called Think Like a Child. For the exercise, class participants are paired up to interview each other on a mundane topic such as “what is coffee?” Class participants are instructed to assume no prior knowledge on the subject and encouraged to maintain a stance of childlike curiosity.

“What is Coffee?”

“What is coffee” is an exercise that was first developed in collaboration with fellow anthropologists Patti Sunderland and Rita Denny during my early days as a consumer anthropologist at Whirlpool Corporation. Thanks to them, I have continued asking others, “What is coffee?” (see Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, 2007).

To some, it may seem like a silly question and big waste of time to ask others “What is coffee?” Coffee is, after all, a very straight forward topic, right? Not a lot of differences in the meaning of coffee, so why bother asking the obvious?

If I wanted to understand the wants, needs, and behaviors of the coffee customer, can’t I just start with the assumption that we all share the same concept of coffee? What it is? How it’s served? When & where and with whom is it consumed? The answer is a resounding “no.” Anyone who has spent time in other places such as Italy, for example, understands that coffee is perceived and experienced very differently than it is in America.

In Italy, coffee is an evolved art form. It’s called ‘caffè’ and always refers to a small cup of espresso served in a small, thick walled espresso cup. It’s frequently drunk down in one gulp while standing in a ‘bar’ next to others who are also doing the same. Caffè can be served in many different ways, such as: caffè ristretto (‘restricted’ with about ½ the amount of water of a regular espresso), caffè doppio (a ‘double’ shot of espresso), caffè corretto  (‘corrected’ with a shot of liquor), caffè macchiatto (‘spotted’ with a drop of milk) , caffè lungo (‘long’ with a bit more water added to the cup). The cup of coffee most like our own here in the US is ‘caffè Americano’ (with even more water added and served in a larger cup). Never ask for a “latte” unless you don’t mind drinking a glass of steamed milk instead of coffee. Also, never order a cappuccino (espresso with steamed milk, named after the hood of the robes worn by Capuchin monks) after 11:00 am—it’s just not done.

So, next time you have a chance to interact with another, try to think like a child, maintain a sense of curiosity, and ask those “obvious” questions that need asking without fear of looking silly. You might actually learn something new in the process. 

Copyright 2017 @ ROMEO ANTHROPOLOGICAL CONSULTING. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2017 @ ROMEO ANTHROPOLOGICAL CONSULTING. All rights reserved.

Fresh Eyes: A Prerequisite for An Improved Customer Experience

Donna Maria Romeo, PhD.

September 1, 2017