Customer Obsession Image depicts purple lights of data forming a circle to represent customer centricity

How UX Leaders Can Create a Culture of Customer Obsession

Marvin CEO Prayag Narula shares valuable tips for creating a customer-centric culture.

7 mins read

This time, the shoe is on the other foot — interviewer becomes interviewee. Marvin CEO Prayag Narula made a recent guest appearance on User Interviews’ Awkward Silences podcast to talk about the importance of customer obsession. 

Prayag shared his insights about building a culture that centers around the user. He shared lessons learned along his journey from junior researcher to research facilitator. Prayag outlined the ideal business environment to help solve real customer problems.

During the episode, Prayag shared his thoughts on:

  • Building Your Culture of Customer Obsession
  • Researcher vs. researcher — The Roles They Play
  • Maintaining a Research Repository
  • The Customer-Centric Culture at Marvin

Still want more? Listen to the full episode of Practical Strategies to Foster Customer Obsession with Prayag Narula.

Building Your Culture of Customer Obsession

He began with recommendations on how to build a culture centered around the customer. 

“It’s a lot easier to build a customer-centric culture, than change into one,” said Prayag.

His experience of working with teams large and small has led him to identify:

  • the best time to start building the culture
  • the organizational support required

The ideal time to start is when establishing a company, team or department. In a startup environment, it’s far easier to ingrain customers in your thinking from day one. When company leadership obsess over customer feedback, it becomes more embedded in the long run.

Customer Obsession from the Top Down

The most customer-centric teams use a top-down approach.

“I’ve never met a leader or CEO who says ‘don’t share what our customers are saying about us, I don’t want to hear it,’” Prayag said. 

Large public customer-centric companies can trace customer obsession back to their founding. Business leaders obsessed over customer feedback from the get go.

What does this customer obsession entail? How do business leaders become obsessed?

Prayag broke customer obsession down into a few factors:

Proactively Ask “What Do Our Customers Say?” 

Put this question to various teams — research, design, strategy, pricing, and product. Repetition is key — by asking this question over and over, you’ll change a team’s outlook. Everyone will learn from it. A public company CEO once mandated that a weekly email be circulated among employees. The email contained quotes, clips and playlists of the user’s voice. This created shared learnings across the organization, with everyone hearing directly from the horse’s mouth (sorry, users!).

Use Feedback in Decision-Making

This doesn’t apply to product decision making alone. Include the customer voice in strategic, marketing and pricing decisions. HubSpot leaves an empty chair in a meeting room to represent the customer. That’s extreme. Prayag suggests roping in the customer’s voice into all conversations. “It’ll give you another parameter to look at while making organization-wide decisions,” he said.

With every decision ask yourself:

  • How did we make this decision? 
  • What customer insight did we bring?

Marry Quantitative and Qualitative Data

Quantitative data analysis is deeply embedded in company decision-making. Prayag harks back to a quote by Edwards Deming:

In God we trust. All others bring data.

According to Prayag, there’s a tendency to over rotate on quantitative data. He’s quick to remind us that “data” includes qualitative data, too. With quantitative data, it’s harder to capture context. That’s not to say stop using quantitative data – combine the best of both. Leverage qualitative data to keep your finger on the pulse of what the market is saying.

Learn when to use quantitative vs. qualitative research

Changing Culture within an Organization

What if your company is 20 years old?

If you’re at a mature firm, it’s challenging to build a customer obsession from the ground up. You can’t exactly travel back in time to begin creating foundational changes.

Prayag shared two tactics to shift your organization’s approach to prioritize customers:

1) Start Small. Start Somewhere.

You don’t need a vast research team, with extensive research skills and capabilities. You don’t need cutting-edge research tools like Marvin to do your bidding for you. Make an effort to pick up the phone and ask your customer a few questions. “It doesn’t need to be perfect, it needs to be done,” he said. Don’t overthink it. 

Learn how to empower your employees to talk to your customers

2) Socialize the User’s Voice.

At Marvin, we’re firm believers that user research is a team sport. Research teams must act as champions for customers. They’re a point of contact for the rest of the organization. Researchers amplify what customers are thinking, tying conversations back to the user voice. A word of caution — don’t overwhelm your audience; make it easy for people to engage with what you’ve learnt.

“Most leaders and team members want to hear from customers. If you can become the conduit to do that, that’s going to drive organizational culture change,” he said.

A Researcher’s Role in Culture

Researchers vs. researchers

Companies have different nomenclature for distinguishing between senior and junior researchers. 

At User Interviews, “researchers” include trained professionals. “PWDR” or people who do research represents employees with basic research skills. Prayag uses a different system —  “Researchers” vs. “researchers” (pay attention to the capitalization – it’s big R versus lowercase r).

So how do their roles differ?

According to Prayag, a big R’s role is multifold:

  1. Socialize and communicate. People across the organization must have visibility of research results. They must also understand the importance of research.
  1. Training day. Senior researchers can’t be everywhere – they must learn how to delegate. Big R’s can standardize processes and create tools and templates for padawans to use and follow. To carry out routine processes like usability testing, it’s in their best interest to train junior researchers / PWDR’s / little r’s. This frees up a big R’s time to focus on more strategic pursuits. 10 points to anyone who spotted the Star Wars reference.
  1. Chart a research roadmap. Identify places where the research team’s involvement is necessary. What strategic decisions need a large scale research effort? Talk to product, design and strategy teams to stay ahead of what’s in the pipeline. Create a research roadmap

Prayag shared his thoughts on how to get involved in more strategic conversations: 

  • Be very intentional about seeking out partnerships with product managers and leaders
  • Add value to their initiatives and see where they could use your UX research expertise 

When it comes to little r’s or PWDR’s, Prayag believes that they must have a degree of freedom. Without professional training, they’re best suited to conduct low impact, localized projects. A sense of autonomy and responsibility empowers them to carry out their best work.

Big R’s conduct research that impacts the strategy of the organization. Little r’s research informs and impacts their specialized area or department.

Doing v/s Using Research

Given these roles, how do researchers (big R and small) spend their time? Do they focus on conducting new studies? Or lean on existing research carried out by others?

Ask these three questions before beginning any research project:

  • Do I need the research? 
  • Do I need traditional, process-oriented research? 
  • Will ad-hoc, guerrilla research suffice?

In Prayag’s experience, most research teams conduct research when they don’t have to. There’s a high likelihood that someone, somewhere has asked a similar question – it’s a matter of finding it. 

In this vein, it’s vital to discover research that your team has already done. It saves you trouble, time and heartbreak (more on this below). 

At the end of the day, every decision made must track back to research that’s carried out, whether old or new. 

Maintain a Research Repository

A research repository houses data collected by various teams across a company. As a firm’s ever expanding knowledge bank, it can feel like a daunting place to look for existing research.

Users must feel as if data added is immediately visible and available to the rest of the company. Prayag shared tips on how to make your research repository feel active, alive and used.

Establish a Process for Your Research Repository

“Teams can do a better job of setting up their repository as a discovery tool,” he said. Build your repository so teams discover other’s work and showcase their own research. Prayag believes in giving more freedom to contributors. Everyone should be able to add data to the repository. He doesn’t believe in exerting control over processes. If researchers are the only ones contributing, you end up with a small, constrained and biased dataset.

“Make it easy for people to put more data in. As you see the data start to balloon, go in and massage the data and your process a little bit,” he said. If you don’t make it easy for people to add data, they’ll forever be reluctant to explore and use the repository. That’s anti–discovery

Learn how to get the most out of your research repository.

Choose the Right Research Repository Tool

Prayag agrees that a repository can resemble a “black box.” Visible insights (or lack thereof) is a limitation of tooling more than anything else. The right tool can do a better job with surfacing insights, with a little help from AI.

AI allows you to use natural language to interrogate unstructured data with questions such as “what have our customers said about our product in the last two months?” While the tech may not be foolproof, it will catch up to the required level.

Prayag is bullish on the use of AI in research — it will only grow in importance. “AI has a really important role to play, we’re only scratching the surface,” he said.

Head over to our extensive guide — the one-stop shop for all things research repository..

The Customer-Centric Culture at Marvin

How does Prayag use his learnings to build a customer-centric culture at Marvin?

“Every customer interaction is an opportunity to get feedback,” he said. 

Here are some of the customer-obsessed practices we use at Hey Marvin:

  • Centralized Customer Interactions. All customer interactions go to a centralized repository. Whether it’s research calls, sales calls or emails. Every bit of communication adds to our company knowledge. Everything we do sits in our repository.
  • Universal Access. Everyone has access to our Marvin research repository — product managers, engineers, designers or salespeople. All participants can add and view any data (unless it’s marked confidential, of course). By adding data regularly, employees contribute significantly to the company’s knowledge bank.
  • Documentation Tracking. Customer feedback explains the ‘why are we doing this?’ of it all. Emails, product requirement documents and Jira epics all link to a customer requirement. You name the format, it’ll trace back to something the user said. Every all-hands meeting includes customer quotes and videos and audio clips. We want to hear directly from the customer. It all traces back to talking to the market – what are our customers saying about us?

At Marvin, we’ve ritualized customer centricity into our processes. It helps us build a product that speaks to users’ needs.

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Just Start Focusing on Your Customers

Prayag has seen too many teams fall because they failed to prioritize customer centricity. He urged everyone to start small and simple, and see where it gets you. 

His parting advice echoes our company ethos:

Get in front of your customers. Talk to your users.

Photo by Adrien Converse on Unsplash

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