Analyzing the Chain of Why to Understand Your Customers' Behavior

In my last blog post “Customer Behavior isn’t Always Rational. You Need to Look at the Emotional Drivers Too,” I talked about how customer behavior isn’t based on rational decisions alone. Emotions are dominant in dictating their thoughts, spurring motivations and actions.

Today, companies are continuously focused on creating bigger and better products (or services)  to get customers to come to them. As a result, there ends up being a downside: they lose sight of the customer perspective. It is a race to communicate the latest feature that a company believes will get them to buy, instead of communicating the value of  their product at a deeper level.

Gina Woodall, President of Rockbridge Associates, a leading market research firm with an expertise in consumer decision modeling agrees: “Much of the messaging, communications and promotions is at that feature level. For example, banks talk about low interest rates and telecommunications companies promote faster internet speeds.  But, what does that really mean for consumers?  They are not buying based on the product features. There's something more to it. What do these features mean for them in their lives?”

“You need to get to the next level, so that communications really speak to buyers and how they make decisions,” Woodall continues. “Then, they can immediately see, ‘Yeah, that's me, that's what I need, that's what I'm looking for.’”

Limitations of Traditional Questioning – You’re Only Scratching the Surface and Getting at the ‘What’

Customers don’t answer questions at a deep level when you initially ask them why they bought or would buy a product.

The customer will respond with whatever is top of mind because it’s difficult to articulate what led to that particular purchasing decision. So what you get are ‘attributes’ or product characteristics and basic benefits influencing their decision. Rarely does it give you insight into the consequences of those attributes in their personal life, and ultimately the customer’s “values” which are central to their decision-making process.

So how do you tap into their psyche to get at those underlying motivations - those emotional needs and subsequent triggers to help you build better advertising campaigns, communication materials and products?

A Means to Understanding Their Value Chain - Ladder Up


There is a body of research called Means-End that is based on an underlying theory that people make decisions on more than just the rational motives. The theory assumes that consumer decision-making is actually influenced more by the consequences of a product or service’s  attributes  in context of the customer’s  life, and that is what ultimately triggers their decision to choose you or buy from you.

Think of it as a value chain that links a product or service attribute to its functional consequence, to the emotional consequence, to get to the underlying personal value. Simply, it is a link between and hierarchy of attributes, consequences and values.

Image from Rockbridge Associates.

Image from Rockbridge Associates.

Understanding these links in regard to your product or service starts with employing a powerful interviewing technique called laddering that can be used to get at these nuggets of information.

The laddering technique  involves a series of questions getting to the underlying “why” behind the interviewee’s purchasing decision:

  • "Why did you choose this product/service?" - This helps to establish the important attributes.
  • "Why is this important to you/your business?" and “How does this make you feel?” - These get to the consequences and values, or the underlying deeper motivations every person has for their life.

These questions are the first steps in understanding what drives a consumer’s decision process beyond product attributes.  However, laddering interviews mandate a series of probing questions with a skilled facilitator who knows how to direct the conversation and ensures those questions and answers are linked, ultimately, uncovering deeper emotional needs every buyer has.  And numerous  interviews are required to ensure you get a significant sample to reflect your audience perspectives.

“You need to probe deeply, and it might feel strange to ask these questions, because the responses begin to get deeply personal, but you have to keep going,” explains Woodall.  “The Means-End methodology has a proven structure to asking those questions to get to the heart of buyer behavior.”

Mapping Out The Decision-Making Process

Once you’ve collected a robust set of data that offers insights into what the attributes, consequences, benefits and risks are, you can quantify the most common decision paths of your customers.

This process will involve coding the data from the laddering interviews and conducting analyses on it. Mapping out their value chains will ultimately give you a roadmap for crafting compelling communications, products and brand strategies that will persuade your end consumer to buy.


To learn more about this specific methodology, check out Rockbridge Associates’ blog on Means End Research.