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New Delhi: Marketeers have realized that in an economic downturn, it is important to listen harder to consumers, said Frances Li, executive director and head of customer experience, Asia, at Synovate, market research arm of global marketing communications firm Aegis Group Plc.

The firm has found its clients in India are investing an additional 5-10% in managing customer experience, a trend that Li said is likely to pick up. Li and her Indian counterpart, Meeta Luthra, associate director and head of customer experience for Synovate India Pvt. Ltd, spoke in an interview about key trends in consumer experience management and pointed to factors influencing consumer behaviour in India and the world. Edited excerpts:

Trend experience: Synovate’s Frances Li (left) and Meeta Luthra. Li says consumers in India now have better access to information and are more involved in decision making, so firms can’t fool them any more. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

Li: Most marketeers are under the impression that they need to innovate only in good times when consumers are ready to buy. But they need to know that it is more important to innovate when times are bad because by doing so, it helps customers become more efficient and research helps marketeers learn how to go about it.

There are some pain points, a term we use to describe facts that consumers can’t articulate in words for what they want, or what they are looking for.

Consumer research helps marketeers read between the lines and address these pain points. It helps marketeers deliver their brand promise with methodologies that are designed to ask consumers the right questions and listen to them in the right way.

Store managers have an idea about how customers are behaving, but research makes it more scientific because the insight derived pinpoints specific areas where customers spend more time, what influences their decision at the point of sale, whether in-store promotions are helpful in that particular environment, etc.

What are some key trends in the consumer research and management?

Li: Earlier, managing customer experience was more operational for companies and it was kept quite separate from the brand. But today it can’t work that way.

Customer experience management and the brand have to be in alignment. Marketeers have begun to translate their business strategy in what they want their customer experience to look like.

In India, understanding the science of customer management is a relatively new concept and something companies have begun to consciously invest in only in the last three years or so. Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint

Earlier, at the most there was a customer management board that took care of feedback and issues, but now companies are using online forums that do that, which initiates quick feedback analysis.

Also, there are a lot of companies that are measuring Internet buzz and research companies are setting up search tools to understand what these themes are, so when a marketer comes in to work the next morning, she can get a report to see what is being discussed and if there is any looming crisis that they need to manage with a PR (public relations) perspective.

You see, in India, understanding the science of customer management is a relatively new concept and something companies have begun to consciously invest in only in the last three years or so because businesses in India have faced more competition in their respective sectors, and standards of service or products are now also easily comparable to international companies that are present in India. So companies are slowly recognizing the need for research tools to stay ahead of competition and at par with international standards.

What are the factors influencing consumer behaviour and how is it different from international markets?

Li: We did a study recently where we asked customers in India and in 15 other markets to compare customer service in their respective countries from three years ago. We asked them if brands are doing a better or worse job in earning their loyalty.

India had a good proportion of consumers saying that brands were doing a better job, so it’s clear that there is a reinforced focus on consumer-centric strategy being applied on businesses to influence consumer behaviour.

Indian consumers are making informed decisions now because they have better exposure to information on products and are able to compare these products with their rivals. As a result, companies cannot fool consumers any more because consumers are getting more involved in the decision-making process. Also in India, as consumers get more exposed to other parts of the world, it raises expectations from what they want out of marketeers in India.

Unlike a few years ago, Indian consumers are not okay with just seeing a product and buying it, they have to experience it, too. From the clients we talk to, it is evident that consumers want to touch and feel their product in a simulated environment. This is especially true for the retail sector, where a lot of emphasis is being put on creating an ideal environment for shoppers.

Which are the prominent industries in India that invest in customer experience management?

Luthra: Financial sector, retail, consumer durables, telecom and FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) companies have been using consumer research for years now but there has been a renewed focus on creating what we call ICE, for ideal customer experience, ever since the downturn.

There has been a 5-10% increase in understanding consumer behaviour in slowing times through research by some of our existing clients.

Realty and media are some of the newer sectors that have begun using research tools. Also PSUs (public sector units), such as railways, and Indian drug and oil companies have really started looking at customer research seriously and got into it in a big way.

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