Why is it important to know your customers?

At an event recently, we listened to several people talking excitedly about their new products and the technology that powered them. What no-one seemed to be talking about was customers. Why did they need this stuff? What frustrations was it going to iron out for them?

Because as exciting as new tech is, if you don’t know your customers, it’s going to be really difficult to create the right products for them – and to market them in the most effective ways.

We’ve seen a couple of scenarios that prevent organisations from getting their superb new technology out to market successfully.

You are not your customer

The first tends to happen to smaller organisations – particularly if they are owner-managed. It’s when the senior decision makers in the organisation make the assumption that they are their customers. So all the decisions about what’s going to work is based on whether they personally like something.

This brings up a couple of flaws. Let’s imagine a nutritionist duo, and as a side enterprise they decide to launch a range of healthy snacks for kids. They base their ideas on what they know to be good nutrition for growing bodies and minds. They call their snacks HEALTHBITZ and they work with a manufacturer to produce prototypes. They think they taste amazing. But when they’re pitching their snacks on Dragon’s Den, Tej Lalvani takes a bite and says he thinks sriracha kale chips might be too sophisticated for kids… and actually, the branding is a bit dull. Our nutritionist duo gets defensive. One of them says: “Well, I would have loved them when I was a child… and it’s their parents who are going to buy it anyway. I think the packaging is beautiful.”

But Tej, of course, is right. Our nutritionists have only considered what they like themselves, and have elected themselves as proxy customers.

It feels obvious in this example – but plenty of really talented people do it. And they ignore advice to the contrary. They choose brand colours that they loved back in the day. They talk about they things they find exciting about their product: “Tri-glyceride chains are essential for amino acid transport!” rather than, “Great for growing kids,” or, “For future ballerinas, scientists, firefighters and dinosaur hunters…”. Their social media features things they’re interested in, rather than what their customers might love. And instead of building a commercial enterprise, they’re sinking hours of their life and all their capital into an inward-facing nerd project.

And a lot of the feedback you get in some projects comes from this thinking too. “I wouldn’t like this!” isn’t great feedback. Brilliant feedback would be: “Our customers wouldn’t like this because…”

The other thing that can happen when you (knowingly or otherwise) appoint yourself as a proxy customer is that you fall prey to believing your decision-making is rational. If you’re a human being, your thinking is not rational. So this could take you down the route of trying to market a smart phone, based on the quality of its processor.

Best-guessing about your customer can go wrong

The second scenario happens most often in larger organisations with huge HQs and teams who might never have met or talked to a customer in their professional lives. They see research, of course. And they may even be involved in focus groups. But in some organisations there’s little direct contact with real-life customers.

The thing is, research can be useful. We’re not so keen on focus groups – but that’s not to say you can’t get anything interesting from them. However, while a pen portrait of a customer can be a useful, top-level description of a customer segment, it’s a mistake to think it’s a full description that contains all your answers.

Because if all you know about your customer is that he’s “Tom, 35, successful professional, married, home owner, primary school-age kids, salary £75k+, drives an Audi” – you’re likely to overlay this caricature with a lot of your own interpretation of what Tom’s life is like. If you’re also around 35 and male, you may conclude that Tom’s life is very similar to your own, and that your customers’ concerns are therefore the same as yours – and that they navigate your website as easily as you do, and that they understand that taking out an ISA is something grown-ups should do every year.

Alternatively, you might be a straight-out-of-uni marketing exec who’s sharing a flat or living back with mum and dad – and getting used to a lifetime of seeing that massive student debt outlined on your pay cheque every month. To you, Tom might be an almost mythical figure. So you overlay your own narrative on Tom. What would you do if you owned a home? If your salary was over £75k? In your mind, Tom might be living it up, going on lots of amazing holidays and buying the best of everything.

It’s likely that you’ve been encouraged to think of Tom every time you plan. He’s real to you and you make him part of your thinking process. But here’s the thing: Tom isn’t real. Tom is a generalisation – and a generalisation that you’ve probably added your own interpretation to. And while the pen portrait of  “Tom” can give you a good idea of who to send which email alerts to, and in which format, nothing beats seeing and talking to real customers.

Nothing beats seeing and talking to real customers

A while ago, we were working with a contact centre team for a private bank (a bank for wealthy customers). It was a fantastic contact centre, with lots of lovely people in it. But their salary was never going to make them customers of the bank. So they imagined how wealthy people would like to be talked to and they delivered a rather deferential and elaborate service. We wanted to show them the reality. So we went out and shot videos of customers in their homes and work places, talking about their lives and what mattered to them.

Each of the videos had a big impact. They saw a mum making packed lunches for her kids. Her kitchen was gorgeous and very well-equipped – but her routine was (shockingly, for many people watching the video in the contact centre) very similar to theirs. They saw a dad rushing around to get his kids to their various activities. They saw the owner of a multi-million pound business talking about how much he loved watching the birds in his garden.

Rich people, suddenly, were tangible. They weren’t simply a series of pen portraits – and as a result, the service they gave became better because it was more aligned to what their customers really needed, rather than what a caricature of them suggested they needed.

If you don’t know who your customers are, what matters to them and what frustrates them, it is always, always going to be harder to provide the right products and services to them, in the right way.

It’s important to know who your customer isn’t

It’s also important to understand that there are very, very few organisations who can legitimately claim that their customers are “everyone”. One of our clients is the Welsh Revenue Authority. They can truly say their customers are “everyone”. However, we don’t have another client that can truthfully say this.

For an organisation to succeed, it needs to have a clear idea of who its ideal customers are, who its peripheral customers are – and who is never, ever going to be a customer. If you go after “everyone” you’re going to lack focus and the business as a whole will suffer.

If you’d like to talk to us about your customers, we’ll always be happy to listen.

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