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From the unknown unknowns to always knowing

In 2002 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was interviewed about the war in Iraq and the lack of evidence showing weapons of mass destruction and gave the following answer.


“Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones”


We all know how that ended, but what if we could better identify the unknown unknowns? What if businesses could not only understand and act on answers to the questions they have, but get answers to the questions they never knew they should ask in the first place?


The principle of unknown unknowns is becoming more and more applicable every day. As consumers have more information, options to choose from, and lower barriers to switching and markets become more fluid, businesses must anticipate and react to changes faster than ever before.


So how do you go about mitigating the risk, or even better, capitalizing on the opportunities of the unknown unknowns?


These are the principles we’ve found that help solve for unknown unknowns.

  • Engage customers and learn from them continuously. Reactively asking for feedback from your customers just tells you what already happened. Be proactive! By asking questions continuously, and not waiting for some form of customer event or interaction, you’re able to identify and adapt to changing customer needs and perceptions BEFORE the internal alarm bells go off because of a broken process.


  • Learn from the customers you’ve never engaged with before, that have never purchased from you. Binoculars are great for seeing incredible detail, but you miss the larger picture by only looking at and listening to one audience.


  • Learn from everyone. The world is complex and nuanced and often the gems are hidden under a lot of noise. Representative data eliminates the unique, interesting, and often incredibly relevant insights that actually make up your customer audience.


  • Remove bias and assumptions and keep an open mind. Rather than testing and validating your own hypotheses (e.g. “Would a discount convince you to buy?”) allow customers to openly and freely tell them what’s on their mind (e.g. “What would convince you to buy?)


  • Give your customers the voice they’ve always wanted. Your customers want to talk to you. They want to tell you what they want and how they want it, but you have to be willing to listen. Asking about their satisfaction over and over and over again isn’t letting them truly express themselves.


These principles aren’t a catch all, but they are a great start to helping change the way we engage with and listen to our customers. The first step is implementing the programs and processes that enable your organization to act on these principles.


Qualitative Intelligence (QI) allows you to continuously engage large audiences, collect unbiased qualitative expressions, and through artificial intelligence give you a way to discover, monitor, and act on changes in customer motivations, barriers and desires.


Qualitative Intelligence can’t make unknown unknowns go away, but it helps you anticipate and react to them much faster!


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