Curiosity is a Godsend

Curiosity is a Godsend

“You know, we kept calling you guys. I was calling your competition too. And nobody would return my calls. I had to make like five or six calls until one chap showed up. And he started talking to me about all your products and the schemes and the payment modes. I said I know all that. Here is the money. Give me the product, and that was it.”

We were amid a delightful conversation with Dr. Kumar, a doctor in Bangalore. During a strategy consulting project for one of India’s largest vacation ownership companies trying to make a comeback. Despite massive growth in the travel sector, vacation ownership as a category was minuscule. And the client wanted a 10x increase.

We were listening to people who had still chosen to take a traditional product like vacation ownership despite the booming hotel and online travel industry options.

Dr. Kumar had bought this product the last year. He was a retired doctor from the Army who had set up his private practice and continued to see a few patients on weekends. Just to keep himself busy. He and his wife lived in a small single-family home in an old suburban neighborhood of Bangalore. His kids were grown up and settled in America and Europe. And he used to see them and his grandkids only during annual vacations.

Dr. Kumar told us about the exasperating experience he had in trying to buy our client’s product. He had read all about a complex product that had payments for 25 years. He was interested. But nobody would return his calls. So not only did he call our client’s call center, but he called the competition too. And he ended up buying from the first brand that showed up. It was almost as if the entire industry was not interested in selling to him.

Later, in discussions with the client’s sales team, we discovered that Dr. Kumar’s experience was designed and not a freak occurrence. For years the vacation ownership industry had been plagued by the evils of aggressive salespeople, who pressured unaware and unsuspecting people to buy their products. And the industry sales practices reminded folks of this iconic scene from Glengarry Glenn Ross.

And one set of unfortunate victims of such sales practices were seniors.

So, the client had actively discouraged their employees, sales staff, and lead generation teams from securing purchases from senior citizens. Instead, they focused on the younger audiences, mostly in their 30s, because they believed that their product made sense for people with young families, and hotels didn’t work for them. Vacation ownership was designed to be a home away from home experience for busy young families who wanted a break.

The client always had more than 10 times the leads that they could follow upon. So in the lead prioritizing, seniors would never make the cut for follow-up. The client’s logic that somebody was already in their 60s should not be targeted for a product whose payment tenure was 25 years. They wouldn’t be expected to live long enough to benefit from this product.

There was also a prevailing view of senior citizens in India. Seniors were seen as people, who in their sunset years as the family elders, look to instill values in their grandchildren. So they become almost dependable childcare for young grandchildren in a joint family. While their own grown-up kids were busy building their careers.

Dr. Kumar seemed like an anomaly. But instead of ignoring him, we were curious about why he behaved that way. And were there more people like him.

From Dr. Kumar’s vantage point, the prevailing narrative starts to unravel. Today, many senior citizens had already met their obligations towards their own children. Because the kids had migrated for their jobs, the joint family was disappearing among the upper-middle-class. They would only visit their parents during annual vacations. To grandparents like Dr. Kumar, homecoming itself felt like another chore. It only added to the number of people in the household, but nobody can have fun because the women were busy with the cooking, and all the mundane tasks of running the house were still around. It just increased the drudgery of regular life.

Instead, they wanted to holiday together. To be in a place where the regular household chores were taken care of by somebody else. So that they could spend time in the company of each other, having new experiences. Homecoming for these segments started shifting to vacation ownership products.

Also, people like Dr. Kumar were not interested in becoming being childcare to their grandchildren. They had their own life. And now that their investments have compounded, they are no longer tied down by working, they’re looking for enriching life experiences, and they have the money to spend on it.

They had the time and desire to take multiple long vacations. Which was the reason they bought multiple timeshares in different areas with different companies. They weren’t tied down only to peak season travel. They could do it when they wanted. They were committed to the product and rarely had the inclination to renege on payments.

When we heard this conversation with Dr. Kumar, we went back and asked for the client’s data and looked at it through the lens of age and demographics. What we found was stunning and something everyone had missed. Despite the entire industry’s efforts to discourage and ignore seniors, they over-indexed in vacation ownership. In addition, they were far higher in owning multiple products. They had the highest proportion of most premium products and less than 1% defaults in payments.

And this discovery and line of inquiry were triggered just by one conversation initially with Dr. Kumar and our own finding of the similarity in the profile of every senior customer we met.

So even before the project concluded, one of the critical actions to take was to look at senior citizens’ inquiries, especially those that came directly to the call center, and move them to the front of the line. This alone significantly improved the sales and retention for the client’s business.

Of the many lessons this journey teaches, anyone who wants to follow human-centered strategic thinking is to have the spirit of an investigative journalist.

Listening to Dr. Kumar’s entire life journey allows us to understand who he is and why he bought the product.

To listen to the client deeply is to understand the pure source from where they decided to ignore seniors. Thus, being curious about why Dr. Kumar was bucking the trend.

And then to see if the data is validating the hypothesis that these stories are telling us.

An investigative journalist looks at conversation and data points to tell a narrative. The human-centered strategist uses similar methods to solve problems.

Navin Narayanan is a partner at Centre of Gravity. He leads HumanWorks, the school of Centre of Gravity where we teach the philosophy and method of Human-Centered Thinking and its allied skills.

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