Building A Better Picture of Customers

Spring 2023

Customer research and insight is valuable in any sector (in fact we’d argue that it’s not just valuable, but essential), and construction is no different. But it’s a complex sector, with many different roles and relationships that can make it difficult for “off the shelf” approaches to customer research to be really effective.

In this article we’ll look at questions like how you should define a customer and who you need to be speaking to in order to get the most out of your research, both of which are more complex than you might at first think.

Working with organisations throughout the construction industry and its supply chain, we’ve seen these relationships from multiple angles, and we know what a demanding sector it can be. We’ve also seen that strong mutual relationships of trust are a vital part of the industry, and that’s something that customer research should help with rather than be seen as a threat to.

A Complex Sector

Construction, as I said, is a complex sector…but what do I mean by that? Isn’t every sector complex? Well, in some ways yes – every sector is complex and unique, but what sets construction apart is actually that it is complex in a very clearly defined way.

I’m not going to go into the detail of the RIBA Plan of Work stages, but what I do think is worth mentioning is that this model pervades how the industry thinks about itself and the relationships involved in getting a construction project safely and effectively delivered.

Wherever you sit in the project, you need to be thinking about relationships throughout the whole process, from the very initial pre-design of Stage 0 to the ongoing use of the building at Stage 7. No doubt you already are, at least to some extent, but the real question is: does everyone feature in your customer research?

A good starting point is client, designer, and main contractor, but we should also be thinking about the consultants, specialists, advisors, subcontractors, manufacturers, distributors, merchants, and other stakeholder such as insurers, warranty providers, planners, and so on.

At this point some of you may be thinking…

“But they’re not customers!”

Which is fair, to a point, but I’m going to argue that it’s very important to include the views of people that you don’t directly transact with in your customer research, for two reasons.

Influence on decisions

My customer’s customer

First of all, these non-transactional customers often have a big influence on the decision about which product to use or which supplier to specify. Architects, for example, often have more influence over the choice of product than contractors or distributors, even though it’s distributors that manufacturers have a transactional relationship with. If a manufacturer wants to understand, first hand, what customer needs are and how they’re making decisions, then they have to speak to specifiers and contractors direct as well as their distributors.

Secondly, if meeting customers’ needs is your aim, then one of your customers’ needs will be to keep their own customers happy. If you slip up, for instance if you’re late with a delivery, one of the reasons it can create such a crisis is that it causes your customer to let their customer down in turn. You’ll be better able to understand and meet the needs of your direct customers if you understand the needs of the end customer too.

“Customers don’t want quarter-inch drills, they want quarter-inch holes.”

Theodore Levitt


Roles and needs

Once non-transactional customers are on the table alongside transactional customers, you need to make sure you think about the best way to segment the entire customer base that has now been revealed. Depending on who you are and what you do it may make sense to segment based on your product lines, based on the type of project or the sector in which it sits, or by the size of the project or the value of the customer.

All of those are important to think about, as we’ll see later on when we talk about the practicalities of research, but probably less important in the end than thinking about the different roles that exist within each customer, and how the needs of those individuals vary.

“Customers don’t want quarter-inch drills, they want quarter-inch holes.”
- Theodore Levitt

You may be familiar with this quote. It’s used to remind marketing and sales people to sell benefits not features, and it does it in a really neat, pithy, way.

This is a perennial problem, because as soon as you work for a drill-manufacturing company you become unusual in a specific way: you become much more interested in drills than the average person on the street. And that’s true in any industry: the more you get to know your field, the less like a normal person you become. Whatever niche of the construction sector you’re in, this will be true of you too.

That’s why customer insight is so important – it’s the tool that we use to get into the minds of customers, to see through their eyes, and to understand what their needs are. It helps us to see that our customers are looking for quarter-inch holes, not quarter-inch drills.

But who exactly is our customer?

User Stories – a Tool to Help you Understand Roles and Needs

We have a relationship, transactional or non-transactional, with an organisation, and that organisation will have a collective goal of some sort. But the journeys we create are experienced by people, and it’s at the level of individual people that customer insight often needs to operate. Sometimes it’s just one person, but more often it’s a group of people with different roles, who experience different parts of the journey and, most important of all, have different individual goals.

Understanding those individual goals, and the way they interact, is incredibly important in business to business customer research. We’ll look at how to capture it in the research later on, but in many ways what we’re describing here is something that sales people and account managers think about every day. To succeed, yes you need to deliver against your client’s organisational goals, but you also have to help your individual contacts reach their personal goals, which are often unstated. Those individual goals should become clear as you do your research, as long as you do the work to map out what the different roles you need to include are.

One tool that can help us with this is user stories, which to my mind go hand in hand with personas. The template looks like this:

As a [role]

I want to [perform an action]

So I can [achieve my goal of…]

We need to know which role the customer is playing, what they’re doing, and what they hope to achieve by doing it. Those two things can get confused, but really they’re the distinction between the drill and the hole…or perhaps more helpfully, between the drill and putting your books on a shelf that you’ve screwed into the hole.

User stories help us to discriminate between the process of what’s being done and the customer’s goal, or reason for doing it. 

An extreme view is that every single customer is unique, a persona of one. That’s true, of course, but not very useful. As you analyse the outputs of qualitative research you should be able to start grouping together customers who have similar experiences, needs, and attitudes. This bottom-up approach is essential to creating good, realistic, and robust personas. We can group together customers if they do the same job (i.e. are trying to achieve the same thing), have similar attitudes to it, and similar strategies for getting it done. You can see how closely good user stories and good personas tie together.

Personas and user stories help us to make sure that we put what matters to customers front and centre when we set about designing experiences for them. This is the key point. What you are delivering is an experience, not a product, and the delivery and evaluation of it happens inside the customer’s head. That’s why it’s only by using customer insight that you can properly understand the experience.

The Decision Making Unit

What we’re usually trying to do with customer research is to understand how decisions are made, and that means we need to come back to the idea that within every organisation you deal with are likely be a number of individuals that it’s important for us to understand.

We often call this the “DMU” or decision making unit and, very broadly, it normally consists of three types of customer: one or more decision makers (i.e. the person with ultimate sign-off on a decision), a number of influencers who have a direct input into the decision, and often many users who have a diffuse influence, but a lot of experience with the product or service itself.

The detail of what customer needs are depends on the customer, which is why you need to do your research, but they can usefully be divided up into groups like this: functional needs, relating to things like product performance and attributes; needs that relate to the ease of doing business with a supplier; relationship needs, reflecting customers' desire to form a mutually beneficial relationship of trust over time; and individual needs that each customer has to feel understood and able to meet their own personal goals.

So what you should aim to build up is a full picture of those needs, and how they vary across all the different customer roles that you identify. These are just examples, and in the real world there are likely to be more, but the point is that these customer roles will have different needs at every level of the pyramid, from functional to individual.

Hopefully you can see that this more nuanced understanding of customer needs will open up avenues to improve that are not so obvious when you have a product-led view. That understanding matters because it can inform the decisions that we make about how to create a proposition, and deliver an experience, that will make customers loyal. Research should always be about providing information so that you can make better decisions.

Insight = decisions

With customer research, you need to understand what it is you’re measuring, and why it matters. We can divide what we do with customer research into two camps: tactical feedback about particular transactions or events, and strategic research about the overall relationship that a customer has with you.

Tactical research lets you measure how what you do feeds through to how customers feel. It is about the causes of customer attitudes such as relationship satisfaction and Net Promoter Score or NPS.

Strategic research measures how customers in general feel about you, and good strategic research will show you how this links to their behaviour. Strategic research is about the consequences of customer attitudes such as satisfaction and NPS. It’s at that relationship level that attitudes drive behaviour.

Customers don’t make purchasing decisions based on their last experience, they make them based on how they feel about their relationship with you, so the strategic level is vital to understanding the consequences of high or low satisfaction. But strategic surveys can be frustratingly nebulous, and it’s tactical research which is actionable because it allows you to understand the causes of high or low satisfaction and loyalty.


The timing of tactical surveys can be particularly tricky in the construction sector. With such long lead times, particularly on big and complex projects, there can easily be a potential Catch-22 that the feedback you get is either “too early to tell” or “too late to change”.

We’d recommend making sure you gather customer feedback at key milestones throughout a project, and this feedback can be either quantitative or qualitative. Often it benefits from being a bit of a mix so that you can reach a wide range of customers in the most appropriate way to reflect their value to you and how much they have to say. It’s also really important, needless to say, to survey after the project is completed and incorporate what you learn into the way you approach the next project.

Again, just to drive this point home, you need to be thinking about the project as a whole, whatever your role in it. Even if you’re a manufacturer whose products were bought through a distributor months or even years before, you have a stake in how those products are performing when the building is in use, and you should aim to get customer insight into that if you can. Admittedly it’s not always straightforward to do this, but that should be your aim.

Closing the Loops

Using customer insight effectively is partly about  “closing the loop” by getting it quickly back to the frontline teams it relates to, but it’s a mistake to rely only on this.

There is a trap that this closed loop approach can lead to a negative attitude amongst staff, as feedback becomes something to be feared rather than something to learn from. It can also become very reactive and focused purely on the tactical level.

Good customer research programmes are built to look for opportunities to make systemic improvements: changes to products, processes, supply chains, and ways of working that will improve the experience for all customers.

There’s a concept from architecture that I really like, known as “shearing layers”, which provides a good analogy. The idea is that a building is a system of components that change over different timescales, so the Site is eternal, the Structure might last for hundreds of years, the Skin will be renovated every couple of decades, Services such as electrical wiring or lifts  will need to be replaced every 10 or 15 years, and the Stuff within the building might be moved around from month to month or even day to day.

I think this is an enormously valuable concept, and one that is almost directly applicable to the way in which an organisation creates its customer experience.

If we take that idea that there are distinct layers to improving the customer experience, and that they are moving at different speeds, what do we find? There is a nest of loops we need to be closing.

We start with the individual customer with their issue to resolve. We call those “Hot Alerts”, other people might say “Red Flags” or something else, but the idea is that if our survey picks up an actively dissatisfied customer it’s a good idea to do something about it. That’s making things better for 1 customer.

Then, with rapid feedback at the level of an individual member of staff, we might encourage them to reflect on their own behaviours and ways of doing things, affecting 10s of customers.

And at a team level, a manager may be able to make decisions about ways of working, or coach their people, in ways that affect 100s of customers. And then there will be higher levels of management, affecting perhaps 1000s of customers. And finally an organizational level, where strategy, proposition, culture, and systems decisions are made that could affect all customers. Well, I said “finally”, but actually your organization sits in a market, and shaping the way that market operates has the potential to affect not just existing customers, but prospects as well. And that market is profoundly affected by the environment in which it operates, social, legal, and regulatory questions about health and safety, data governance, sustainability and so on.

Hopefully you can see the close parallels between this and the shearing layers concept. And what’s really important to realise is that these loops are not necessarily linked, so lots of activity at a lower layer doesn't add up to change at a higher level. Each loop needs its own effort and a distinct approach, taking place over very different timescales.

Your Research & Insight Plan

So to inform decisions at every level, you need to take a step back to review your entire customer research and insight plan, combining strategic and tactical research. To build a balanced programme of customer experience improvement, we can start with the 4 headings that we use to organise our thinking about customer experience improvement – explore and understand, or qualitative research; measure and track, or quantitative research; plan & act; and storytelling communication and culture change. Over this we need to layer both a tactical and a strategic level of insight and activity.

At both levels you should have qualitative insight that gives you a deeper understanding of customers, quantitative research to measure performance and prioritise improvement, deliberate activity to plan and take action, and storytelling communication to drive through behavioural change and ultimately shape culture. These specific entries are just examples, but I believe every organisation needs something in all of these boxes.

" …too much of qualitative research acts as soundbites to support management decisions.”

Wendy Gordon

Explore & Understand

Measure & Track

The power of detailed qualitative insight is often underused in the construction sector, and we think that’s an enormous pity. Qualitative research should be about more than just asking open-ended questions and reporting what customers say. Your aim should be to create a mental model for the way customers see the world, and therefore how they go about making decisions.

" …too much of qualitative research acts as soundbites to support management decisions.” - Wendy Gordon

That means reading beyond the verbatim responses, which are often used as Wendy Gordon observes as little more than supportive soundbites. We need to get deeper, to understand the unspoken thoughts and motivations that underpin decisions.

That depends on you to do some interpretation, which is why qualitative research is inherently subjective, but it’s also what makes it so powerful.

When it comes to the “measure and track” part, the quantitative aspect of your customer research, we need to reflect the fact that some companies are more valuable than others, some individuals are more influential than others, and some research techniques allow you to get more detail (while costing more) than others.

That opens up an opportunity. Your customer research does not have to be one single compromise method, you can flex it to maximise the bang you get for your buck. In practice, that often means using a “gold, silver, bronze” approach. It might be a combination such as face to face interviews with key decision makers in your most important clients, telephone interviews with other important customers, and online surveys for users throughout the long tail of your customer base. You’re giving everyone the chance to take part, at a reasonable cost to you, but making sure those with most to say have the opportunity to be properly heard.

And you also need to think about how you use your research, tying in with the shearing layers concept we talked about earlier. Conventionally, customer research works vertically — we take everyone’s responses to each question in turn and aggregate them together to draw general conclusions.

That’s necessary, but it’s not the only way to approach analysis. Particularly with more qualitative feedback, it can also be very powerful to work horizontally — looking at how a particular customer has responded to all questions. That case study approach lends itself to a much richer understanding of the context and influences on a particular individual and their decisions. It’s also often more compelling when feeding back the results of the survey to colleagues who know the customer.

CX & Account Management

When it’s working well your organisation should see customer research and account management as approaches that work perfectly alongside each other. Unfortunately it’s easy for the survey to be seen as "marking the homework" of account managers, and that’s really unhelpful.

Getting Account Managers to see customer experience research as a useful tool to help them create better relationships with their customers, rather than an irritating threat to their relationship, is one of the key things which sets effective survey programmes in this sector apart from the rest. To have any hope, you need to make sure that you make Account Managers active participants in the design of the research, and in developing action plans for their own clients (and we’d advocate sitting down with key clients to discuss their feedback in detail).

Wrapping Up

Let’s recap some of the key points we’ve covered. There are five things which I think are crucial to get right with customer research in the construction sector.

1) All customers.

First of all, we need to make sure that we’re getting insight from all customers, including end users, specifiers, and any other non-transactional customers. It may not be easy to find a list to send an email survey to, but it should be possible to get insight and feedback from everyone.

2) Roles & Needs.

Similarly you may need to do some work to get in touch with all relevant roles within each customer, to make sure you have a full picture of their different needs. If you want to understand customer decision making this is essential.

3) Insight = Decisions.

Your own decisions should be informed, as much as possible, by solid customer insight. That’s what research is for.

4) Strategic & Tactical.

It should work at both a strategic and a tactical level, looking at propositions and relationships as well as day to day delivery.

5) “Shearing Layers”.

I find this model a really useful analogy for how customer insight should be used at multiple levels, over multiple timescales, in helping an organisation to understand its customers and its market, so that it can make better decisions.

Stephen Hampshire

Client Manager
TLF Research