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A regular blog offering insightful analysis of the latest in the business world from a researchers perspective.

  • Writer's pictureNick Bonney

Becoming a fish ... why customer closeness is about more than diving right in

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

A client of mine recently forwarded me the Reid Hoffman podcast, The Masters of Scale which has been a great listen and I was fascinated to hear Brian Chesky’s story. The AirBnb founders went above and beyond with their early customers, even posting as photographers as a way to get meet their customers first hand.

The central tenet was ‘ in order to scale, you need to do things that don’t scale’ with the most powerful being to engage with your customers first hand. Yet, it’s often surprising how often in corporate roles we are all too quickly removed from the people who actually buy our product or service.

One of the great trends in recent years has been the evolution of consumer research techniques which allow clients to get our from behind their desk and interact with their customers first-hand – from co-creation to customer closeness, more and more brands are experiencing the benefit of working directly with their end users. When thinking about these techniques, its easy to look for inspiration from anthropology but, for me, there's also a nod to the natural world. The godfather of modern scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau believed passionately that ‘to observe a fish, you need to become a fish' and that there was no substitute for observing sea-life in its natural habitat.' No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the dolphin who inhabits one of those aquariums or one of those marine lands can be considered normal '.

Image : Mael Balland (Unsplash)

In Cousteau's case, this fervour to be at one with the natural world led to him inventing the Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, opening up the underwater world from the professional navy / industrial divers to recreational divers like me and allowing us to experience the joy of observing the underwater world first hand. In many ways, we could apply the same principles to the often hot-housed environment of a focus group vs. getting out and interacting with customers in their natural 'habitat'. It could be argued the metaphor doesn’t stop there; the growing use of these new techniques means customer interactions are now more open to everyone and not restricted to the skilled few.

So what other inspiration can we take from the world of diving to ensure these sessions drive genuine change within the business:-


One of the key pillars of any diving qualification is the principle of dive planning - crucial to avoid risks of decompression sickness. Yet all too often we can throw customers in front of a senior management team and view that as the goal itself rather than as a means to an end. Time with customers is precious. Plan well in advance on the outcomes you want to achieve from the session. Is the session about discovery (uncovering new insights) or theatre (dramatising existing insights the business already knows to inspire action)?

This should impact every element of the design of the session, right down to who you select in the first place – if the programme is about theatre, you may even want to specifically recruit customers who you know are likely to have the particular trait/ issue you have found in your quantitative data and which you are trying to convince the business to act on.


The pre-dive safety briefing is critical to let everyone on the boat understand the conditions they are likely to encounter and what to look at for throughout the dive. A robust briefing is equally important in the world of customers closeness for everyone involved in the session (Both staff and participants alike). It’s easy to under-estimate just quite how much of a daunting experience engaging with customers can be for some senior managers so the more they are briefed on what to expect and how to deal with issues that might arise the better.

It might seem obvious but the trick here is to do this sensitively and respectfully. When I was client-side, one of our suppliers 'over-briefed' for a programme with our board. They felt patronised and in many ways saw the briefing as disproportionate to the exercise they were being asked to undertake. In a diving world a 10 minute safety briefing covers everything you need to know for 45-50 minutes under the water - a good briefing doesn't need to be overly long to be effective. Keep any briefing short, sharp and focused - a brilliantly effective 30m session will be received far better by a time-pressured senior team.


A key lynch-pin here is the guide. In the world of diving the dive leader or dive master is the one responsible for guiding the group along the dive ensuring everyone operates in a safe environment and has fun along the way. They also use their knowledge of the dive site to highlight points of interest, often using their local knowledge to unearth things that would be nigh on impossible as a first time visitor to the site.

Equally the role of the facilitator in is key in any customer closeness engagement. They can help by picking up on non verbal queues or by using prior knowledge of a consumer insight to re-frame a question in a particular way which yields a much more insightful response. This is undoubtedly true when you're involving customers in a workshop-style session but, even in internal workshops (e.g. a wash-up , de-briefing session after managers have been out on customer visits), the role of the facilitator is key – they are unencumbered by internal politics and can ask the ‘dumb questions’ as to why things are done a certain way.


One of the central tenets of the diving world is the ‘buddy system’, always ensuring there’s someone there to watch your back and ensure you don’t get into danger. Whilst not always necessary, it’s a principle I have found useful in customer closeness too.

For the participants, a friendship pair can make the whole experience a lot less daunting than an in home 121 and, for the client team, having a co-moderator means you never have to worry too much about the conversation running dry as you can 'riff off each other' to follow up on interesting points.

However, it’s not just in the session itself where the pair principle is important. Having two of the team running a table at a workshop or visiting a customer’s home together means they have to come to consensus on what they found out! This can be extremely useful in challenging any in-built confirmation bias .

A whole new world


Who can forget the look on David Attenborough’s face in Blue Planet II when he descended into the depths aboard the submersible, Nadir. Technology allowed him to see things he never dreamt of being able to see and brought the same sparkle to his eyes as when he first went diving on the Great Barrier Reef all those years ago (if you haven’t seen it, I recommend watching the clip below)

The research world too is changing apace and opens up a wealth of possibilities to combine technology led solutions to get more out of any customer closeness experience. Community platforms allow us to build up rich diary-led personas before the session and can allow the client team and consumers to break down any barriers before they meet.

Techniques like eye tracking, biometrics and passive metering also allow for a stream of behavioural data to be combined with what customers claim and, just as I wouldn’t now consider diving without my trusty GoPro, let’s not overlook the potential of good old video. Simple additions like screen capture technology can be combined with Vox pops to allow customers to provide the commentary on why they behave the way they do, allowing you to bring the customer 'into the business' when it's just not practical to get the team out to meet them.


Finally, whilst it might seem like the simplest of all, you need to keep a record of what you’ve learnt. In the diving world, this can be as simple as knowing your weights to maintain neutral buoyancy but in the world of customer engagement, there needs to be discipline about what has been uncovered and crucially who is taking what action.

It’s all very well for the brand team to have a whale of a time on that student safari in the union bar but what change is it going to drive in the business which can justify the investment in the programme in the first place?!

Again, technology can help here – in the diving world, I’m still resisting ditching my water stained paper log book and migrating to an app (for purely sentimental not practical reasons!) but, in the workplace, there are many simple and cost effective ways to share actions and next steps. This could be as simple as setting up a Microsoft Team group or Google Plus community to keep momentum up after the session or it could be about allocating tasks through one of the many project tools e.g. Trello or Kanbanflow. Somehow, seeing your face next to a job card on Trello puts a certain pressure on to get it done!

I’m acutely aware I may well have pushed the metaphor to the boundaries this week! However, the core principle remains - great marketing and great customer experiences comes from understanding consumers and their ever changing needs. Mark Ritson put it perfectly in his article for Marketing Week this week when he said ‘while customers are always changing, always surprising us, the USP of our profession, our centre point, is understanding these customers; not speaking for them or assuming their opinion but going out, getting their perspective and using it as a means to help drive our companies forward. That part – the bit where we have to work out what makes the customer tick – remains our biggest challenge and usually our most misunderstood mission.’

Nothing beats experiencing it first hand...

Getting out and engaging with customers directly remains one of the most effective ways to achieve this. Just like with diving, this isn't about impetuously throwing yourself off the side of a boat but with some careful planning and careful guidance along the way you can unearth some clear 'truths' about your business and make a genuine difference.

We’d love to help you engage with your customers and get them into the heart of your planning - just get in touch

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