In marketing research, customer intelligence refers to all information regarding a company’s customers, such as their underlying profiles, preferences, and behaviors, that contribute to building more effective customer relationships. A customer intelligence study is a piece of research undertaken to discover a specific set of these underlying information, and identify the relationship between customer characteristics and marketing. As an outcome of the study, the ultimate goal of the customer intelligence research is to provide critical insights (or bridge knowledge gaps) to increasing sales, yet the findings of the study are typically robust, thus can be utilized to improve the overall performance of a variety of marketing aspects across the marketing spectrum. Some of the key aspects of marketing that could benefit from customer intelligence insights are as follows.

  • Brand Loyalty. Modern consumers today are more fickle compared to the past, and increasing the “stickiness” of customers has become a legitimate strategic focus area for many businesses as they aim to maximize the lifetime value of their customers and prevent erosion of market share.
  • Product Innovation. Findings from customer intelligence studies may contribute to product innovation from a forward- or backward-looking perspective. Insights from customer intelligence may contribute to the research and design phase of product innovation (forward-looking), or to the modify and enhance phase of product innovation (backward-looking).
  • Perceptions and Attitudes. Customer intelligence may be used to discover insights about perceptions and attitudes towards products and services, which weigh in heavily during the decision making cycle. Different research techniques and methodologies can be applied, depending on the marketing problem, to measure and test customer perceptions and attitudes.
  • Motivation (and Barriers). Customer intelligence also includes insights into the customer’s buying preferences and frequencies, and if not, the reasons behind the non-purchases. These insights, coupled with those from perceptions and attitudes, may contribute to product enhancement/innovation efforts and refinement of marketing messaging.
  • Decision Making Cycles. Decision making cycles refer to the entire chain of processes that need to take place before a purchasing decision can be made. Decision making cycles are more complex in B2B transactions compared to B2C and C2C transactions, with potentially multiple decision makers and influencers placed along the chain. Customer intelligence covers the identification of the decision making cycle as well as the structure of key decision makers and influencers.
  • Customer Experience. Customer experience has quickly transformed into a core competitive advantage for businesses in many different industries, as speed and efficiency take center stage in ultra-competitive markets. Operational efficiency, technology interfaces, user experiences, and customer satisfaction often form a key component of customer intelligence studies.

Customer Intelligence Studies vs. Market Surveys

In a certain way, customer intelligence studies are similar to the standard market survey on consumers, in so far as understanding customer behavior is concerned. However, there are  two major differences that separate the two.

  1. Customer intelligence studies are typically conducted where the marketing problem is more exploratory in nature (i.e. where the forming of null hypotheses is challenging) and a deep-dive approach may be more insightful compared to a broad-based approach.
  2. Customer intelligence studies typically incorporate the entire customer experience journey as a research approach.

The wider overarching approach incorporating the entire customer experience journey and the focus on generating deeper insights mean that customer intelligence studies naturally gravitate towards B2B sectors, particular in sectors where customers are more often viewed as “partners” in the perspective of the wider value chain.

A customer experience journey approach typically incorporates the following elements:

  • Customer journey stages: A high-level depiction of the customer journey over the entire lifetime of the customer.
  • Customer journey steps: A detailed depiction of the steps involved across the stages.
  • Customer touch-points: A detailed mapping of every customer touch-point along the customer journey steps.
  • Customer support: A detailed mapping of customer support services rendered (and by whom) along the customer journey steps.
  • Customer activities: An examination (or profiling) of the activities that a customer may undertake during a particular step.
  • Customer motivations: An examination (or profiling) of the motivations that a customer may have during a particular step.
  • Customer questions: An examination (or profiling) of the questions that a customer may have during a particular step.
  • Customer barriers: An examination (or profiling) of the barriers that a customer may face, which prevents the customer from progressing to the next step.

One of the more prominent advantages of a customer intelligence study over traditional market surveys is that it allows customer satisfaction to be measured with higher granularity along the customer journey steps (if the research so desires) as opposed to a single empirical metric, such as a 5-point or 7-point Likert scale, which is generally used to measure customer satisfaction. This enables marketing functions to pinpoint specific touch points, for example, to engage with their customers for greater effect, prioritize marketing resources, and even differentiate themselves from the competition when used in conjunction with a competitive intelligence study.

The full scope and scale of a comprehensive customer intelligence study are usually prohibitive for companies without established research resources to conduct the study internally. Nevertheless, a simplified version of the customer intelligence study is possible, depending on the acceptable reliability thresholds determined by the company (as well as the complexity/criticality of the marketing problem at hand). Regardless of the scale of the research, careful attention paid to the following key research factors are encouraged, in order to ensure the effectiveness of the study’s findings.

  • Identification of the Marketing Problem: Is the marketing problem clearly understood, defined, and specific enough?
  • Research Design: What, where, and how are the required data to be obtained? Should a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-research approach be adopted?
  • Customer Segmentation: What is the basis used for segmenting customers into logical groups, and to what purpose?
  • Customer Experience Journey: What is the model of the customer experience journey?
  • Respondent Bias: Are the target respondents (i.e. the company’s customers) likely to be biased in the company’s favor? What mechanisms are needed to account for this?
  • Assumptions: What assumptions are being made about customer behavior?  What basis are the assumptions are being made on?
  • Variable construction: Are the research variables appropriately to address the marketing problem(s) under investigation?
  • Hypothesis Testing: Are the initial assumptions about customers likely to be true? (The likelihood is tested as part of the customer intelligence study.)