Conduct an Ethnography if You Want to Know Your Consumers

Are reward points given as loyalty to the brand or subservience to the points? Is recognition of your elite tiers during the transaction process really going to help you build loyalty? Does a coupon for a free drink get you a lasting relationship? Loyalty is almost dead in its current form. If you want to build a relationship with your consumers you need to focus on three things – staying in touch, listening to their needs, and serving them the best you can. And yes, social media can go a long way in helping you with all three.

I spoke with François-Yves Caya, manager, loyalty marketing, CRM, and marketing research with VIA Rail (Canada). Our discussion focused on the customer engagement process and how to increase loyalty. François summed it up with three very clear steps:

  1. Does the consumer think about François’ brand when they are booking a trip?
  2. Did the consumer actually book the trip and use François’ brand?
  3. Can François leverage the interaction to start building a relationship?

What François said is very practical – he can only connect with you if he can see your “intent,” and if the “intent” translates into “revenue.”

François’ first tip to marketers is to focus on our consumers’ needs. How well do we understand these needs? In his instance, does he know the purpose of your trip? Is it a business trip or are you going on a vacation? His next consideration is to see if you can recognize the consumer when they are on board or during the transaction process. And when you do “spot” your consumer – can you serve them something relevant? In his case it might be a soft perk such as a drink, a coupon to the restaurant, or even a complimentary upgrade.

What François spoke about next is what inspired me to write this column. He didn’t just want to conduct a survey of his customers. He wanted to know how you felt – so he conducted an “ethnography.” An ethnography is not just watching or asking about consumer interactions; it is also about asking these consumers how they felt based on all of their experiences. He then did a complete 360-degree checkup, and took this practical information to create better experiences.

He contacted his customers after they made their reservations to see if they wanted to participate in the study. On the day of their trip, the consumers were greeted by a representative of VIA Rail whose job was to observe the consumers’ behavior and also ask them about every interaction. They wanted to know how the consumers felt during the entire process.


One of the key things he learned was that familiarity made the consumer comfortable and increased her likelihood of interacting with VIA Rail. New consumers seemed lost and didn’t know where to go next. So to provide them with a level of comfort, VIA Rail decided to offer a light concierge service. Only VIA Rail was able to recognize that you were a new traveler and that they were there to guide you. The whole idea was for consumers to see how easy it was to do business with VIA Rail and become comfortable with their services.

Once the consumer felt comfortable, they became independent and automatically started using VIA Rail more often. In François’ case, creating this feeling of comfort was the start to building loyalty.

Here are three specific tips he provided for marketers.

  1. Meeting or exceeding expectations is key to driving loyalty. If your basics are wrong then it is pointless to ask your consumer to be loyal to your brand. If your train is late then people will not come back. If your consumer is uncomfortable with your setting or site, they are going to want to avoid it.
  2. The consumer is not a seat number; she is a human, a person, and the best way to treat her is as such. You need to humanize the consumer’s experience by training your people to communicate with her personally and efficiently. To do this you need to have employees with the right attitude. If you don’t have a people channel or are only on the web, think about making the interactions easy for the consumer. Look for employees who are service oriented. Every consumer has to be treated personally – they aren’t all the same and if we try to focus on all consumers being equal for growth efficiencies, we run into issues with creating comfort zones.
  3. Figure out what is important to the customer experience and measure your success on the right key performance indicators (KPIs). Pick the right KPIs, track them, and adjust them as required.

One thing that is very helpful to François is that unlike many organizations where marketing research and marketing execution are in separate departments, at VIA Rail he is responsible for both and it has helped him drive success. His suggestion is to bring these functions together for maximum impact.

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