Don’t let excitement about new tech blind you to what really powers your business.

More than 25 years ago, a UK supermarket chain spotted an interesting trend in its customer data: men who bought nappies also bought six-packs of beer. The marketing team drew the conclusion – new dads could no longer justify time off to go down the pub, so they bought beer to drink at home.

This discovery sparked a surge of interest in data collection, and businesses invested millions in technology to capture and process customer information. The ultimate aim was to predict customer need. If you knew what a customer wanted, you could target them in advance with precisely that product or service. Sale made, with minimum effort.

But, as all of us who are customers know, no business has yet been able to use data to accurately predict what we want. “If you liked that, then you might like this” is the best even behemoths like Amazon can do. Despite the impressive advances in tech in the last 25 years, the holy grail of precisely targeted sales and marketing remains elusive. So, what are we missing?

Going back to the UK supermarket’s apparent breakthrough, we can see an important distinction. The data only showed them ‘what’ their customers had bought, nappies and six-packs of beer. It took a human team to make the connection and identify the reason for the behaviour, the ‘why’ – new dads still wanting a beer but needing to drink at home and not the pub. If they had gone a step further and identified the emotional drivers underlying the ‘why’, their insight would have been even richer.

Were the dads driven by positive emotions of love and wanting to do their fair share, or were they driven negatively by guilt or even resentment that they were being ‘forced’ to stay home? Those motivations would require quite different approaches to communication. With this single example, we can see how much potential there is in forming a deep understanding of the ‘why’ driving customer behaviour. How come we haven’t made it a priority?

The answer’s pretty simple. In our race to develop and adopt new technology, we get carried away by the excitement around the tech itself and lose sight of what will genuinely improve our business.

Today’s buzz, for example, is all around AI, in particular how we use it to streamline operations by replacing or augmenting the more expensive human element in customer service, content creation and more. In tougher economic times, it does make sense to focus on how we can improve our bottom line, and it’s reasonable to worry about being left behind as competitors make good use of new tech. But technology is not what actually powers our business. Our customers do.

Finn Roberston, Head of Insights at Hardwired.
Nathan Muller, Business Development Manager at Hardwired.

Think about your own business. You’ll have a website. You probably have a loyalty programme and/or email newsletter – “Sign up and get $10 off your first purchase!” You might have a chatbot. You’ll be tracking and monitoring usage with varying degrees of sophistication. You may be active only on social media, or you may have an extensive cross-media marketing programme that you’re constantly testing and refining. You may be happy with how the numbers are looking, the clicks, engagement, conversion rates, etc. Or you could be wondering how to do better.

Wherever you are with your business, it’s a certain bet that your top priority question is: what tech should I invest in next? The question you should be asking is: how can I gain a deeper understanding of my customers?

A word here about customer surveys – most are useless, because they focus on what the customer thinks about the business rather than what’s important for the customer. It’s the equivalent of going on a blind date, where the other person only wants to know what you think of them and asks no questions about you at all. Irritating and pointless.

“How likely are you to recommend us?” net promoter score surveys give you a score with no insight. Even if you provide a space for a comment, you can’t guarantee the reason given will be the real driver behind their response. To gain a deep understanding of customers you need to be willing to dig below the surface and keep asking questions until you get to the root of it all, the emotional drivers that form the ‘why’.

That takes time, and at this point, it takes humans with specific experience and knowledge to engage in these conversations. ChatGPT is extraordinary but its output still requires scrutiny by a critical human eye. It cannot make ethical or value-based judgements, nor is it capable of deep psychological analysis. Of course, we have to add – “yet”. But even if there comes a time when we don’t, we mustn’t let our love of tech override our need to keep conversing with our customers and deepening our understanding of what’s important to them.

Knowing what drives our customers’ behaviour is the only way we can be genuinely and accurately responsive as a business. And in a world increasingly dominated by tech, that human-to-human connection might make all the difference.

By Finn Robertson, head of insights and Nathan Muller, business development manager at Hardwired. Got Comments or questions for the authors? Email

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