The Power of Understanding Why

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The mattress industry is a fairly old-fashioned industry, and while some of the materials and construction methods have changed a lot over the years, the retail experience for most customers hadn’t changed much in a long time. Prior to the last few years, the vast majority of new mattresses were purchased in physical stores, usually sold by salespeople at department stores or speciality retail outlets. The universally accepted wisdom, backed by all of the consumer research and data has always been that people definitely don’t buy beds or mattresses online.

Qualitative research and direct interviews with customers also support this, with common feedback along the lines of “It’s such a big investment, I definitely want to see and feel it in person before I buy” and “I did some research online but I wanted to come and lie on them, make sure it’s not too soft for me”. Every available morsel of industry data and research all seemed to point to one irrefutable customer need:

The customer needs to see and feel a mattress in-store before they decide whether to buy it.

This is the point where most companies would happily accept what both the research and the customers are telling them, and get on with the obvious job at hand: opening a slightly better mattress showroom than their competitors. In this case, though, it seems that someone at Ecosa had the nous to ask why customers might be saying what they were saying. Here’s how I imagine that conversation may have played out:

Q: Why do you feel you need to see a mattress in-store before you decide to buy it? A: To make sure that I’m buying the right mattress for me.

Q: Why? A: Because it is such an expensive, once-in-a-decade purchase. I want to know that it is a quality product and that it suits me.

Q: Why? A: Because if it is not, it might not last very long and it will be an uncomfortable and costly mistake.

Q: Why? A: Because I’d be stuck with it! I can’t afford to buy another one if I get it wrong.

Q: Why? A: Because mattresses are very expensive, and usually you can’t return them.

By simply asking ‘Why?’ a couple of times, we have managed to get from a single, over-simplified customer need: ‘The customer needs to be able to test the mattress in-store’ to a much more nuanced understanding of the customer and their three deeper, more fundamental needs:

  1. The customer needs confidence that they are buying the correct mattress for them, in terms of firmness and sleeping style.
  2. The customer needs to trust that they are buying a quality, long-lasting product and getting good value for money.
  3. The customer needs to know that in the worst-case scenario, they won’t be stuck with a costly and uncomfortable mistake.

Did you notice that none of these three needs mention a physical store? By using ‘Why?’ to delve just one layer deeper, we have uncovered that visiting a physical store before purchasing a new mattress isn’t actually a customer need at all. It just happens to be that visiting a physical store has traditionally been the easiest and best way for a customer to meet these three underlying needs. Armed with the valuable knowledge that none of those underlying needs actually require a physical store or showroom, we can now explore whether there might be a better way to serve our customers.

This is a classic example of a customer presenting a perceived or pre-selected solution as a ‘need’, and will be familiar with anyone who has experience with user testing or user research. Our customers and users are just people after all, and most of the time they want to be helpful and make our lives as Designers and UX researchers easier, and so rather than discuss their actual problem (I need to hang some new artwork on my wall), they skip ahead, decide which solution or tool that they think is best suited, and present that as their need in order to shortcut the process and save time (I need a hammer).

By far the easiest way to improve any customer experience or journey is to map the experience or journey from start to finish from a customer viewpoint, including identifying any serious pain-points or obvious areas for improvement and then tackling those low-hanging fruit first. In this instance, I ran through some quick journey mapping and empathy mapping exercises with a couple of different people, and made an interesting discovery: For most people, the worst part of buying a new bed or mattress is actually having to visit a store to try it out. The thought of having to spend a sizeable chunk of their free time visiting multiple shops and busy malls sitting on one mattress after another is enough to fill most people with a creeping sense of dread.

So, by taking the time to ask why, and then by spending a little more time empathizing with the customer, we have established that visiting a physical store is neither necessary nor enjoyable for the majority of people. These key insights might have been enough to have emboldened Ecosa to ditch the traditional showroom and physical store, and allowed them to focus on finding new and creative ways to meet the customers’ underlying needs in a way that was good for both the customers and the business.

To give the customer confidence that the mattress is the right one for them, they have simply leveraged a key feature of their product — the fact that it can be set at three different firmness levels, allowing customers to adjust it to their own personal requirements. This goes a long way towards taking care of the first and most important customer need: The customer needs confidence that they are buying the correct mattress for them, in terms of firmness and sleeping style.

In terms of the customers’ need to be sure of the quality and longevity of the product, the battle was partly won — Ecosa already knew they had a quality product, they just needed to find a way to effectively communicate that quality online. Introducing: the 15 year warranty. As a customer, I trust that any company willing to put their money where their mouth is and offer such a long warranty period obviously believes in the longevity of their products.

How about the third and final need? The one where the customer doesn’t want to get stuck with an expensive mistake that they can’t return? This might be one of the boldest parts of Ecosa’s strategy, and to be honest, it was the part that made me happy to pull the trigger on my purchase. If, after 100 days, you are not completely happy with the mattress, for any reason at all, they offer a no-questions-asked 100% refund. They’ll even come and collect it, and donate it to your nearest Salvation Army as a goodwill gesture. Even as a worst-case scenario, you lose nothing, and a family in need gains a new mattress. I’m no expert, but as far as worst-case scenarios go that one seems pretty good.

Ecosa started with a quality product and built a whole new business model around it. They managed to meet age-old customer needs in a new and exciting way that simultaneously removed the most painful part of the journey for their customers. All by simply asking why.

By moving past what your customers are telling you, and working to understand why, you can reach whole new levels of empathy and insight that will enable you to think differently, and empower you to deliver truly exceptional experiences for your customers. If you get lucky you might even be the next Ecosa.

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