Sharing Your Customers' Dreams
Brent Willson | January 9, 2024
Read time: 8 minutes
"There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out."
My wife and I stared blurrily at each other with freshly dilated eyes, trying to decide which glass frames looked the best. This wasn't working. The well-intentioned young attendant came over to help. She picked out a trendy pair of glasses for my wife and insisted she looked great. She wasn't wrong; they would have looked great on a 20-something, but they just were not my wife's style.
Unfortunately, due to our impaired vision, we didn't realize our mistake until they arrived a couple of weeks later. While the young assistant was truly trying to be helpful, it simply never occurred to her that her tastes may not be the same as my wife's.
How well do you understand your customers? Are you driven by ideas or solving problems? Do you know your customer well enough to identify a need, then find a way to meet it in their way, not yours? Do you blindly pursue "innovations" hoping they will magically match someone's need and then try to convince them they need something they really don't?
"A business is simply an idea to make other people's lives better."
The corporate graveyard is littered with innovative disrupters that, whether due to true insight or luck, hit on an idea that resonated with the customer. They burst on the scene with a great idea that solved problems, thrilled their users, and created whole new markets. However, one homerun doesn't necessarily make a World Series champion.
Hindsight is 20/20. Borders Books never understood why anyone would ever want to stare at a piece of pocket-sized sterile glass with an entire bookstore in its thumbnail-sized memory when sitting down with a good paper book is so relaxing. They were so blinded by their own paradigm that they didn't see that someone else had listened to their customers and solved the problems they had taken no time to learn about. On the other hand, Amazon understood Borders' customers better and improved our lives.
These corporate dinosaurs were so enamored with their own success that they could not see past their own quickly obsolescing business model. While Borders was being pulled under by its shelves of paper, Amazon found ways to put an entire bookstore in your pocket. Even my senior citizen mother browses YouTube and Netflix for the movies of her youth and wouldn't think about going anywhere without her Kindle.
Are you so in love with your current products and ideas that you are missing new opportunities while those more nimble, more in tune, and more aggressive than you are solving problems, often the ones YOUR business is causing, and drawing your customers away?
How do you find out what your customers need? What frustrates them? What delights them? How do they work? How do they play? How can you solve a problem for them? How can you delight them?
The answer? You first need to understand them better than they understand themselves.
When was the last time you really talked to a customer? When did you last speak WITH them and not AT them through clever marketing you paid a pile of money for? When was the last time you listened not just to what you wanted to hear but to what they really had to say?
When was the last time you were where your customers use your product? When was the last time you sat next to them and worked or played with them? Cutting yourself off from this vital flow of information is like cutting off your brain from oxygen-giving blood.
Get out of your office and get to know them. Don't just pump them for information. Become their friend, their trusted problem-solver. No one likes to be interrogated but everyone could use a friend that makes their life better.
"To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others."
This takes effort but it can also be refreshing and fun. Yes, you may need a thick skin. They might actually point out your flaws. When they do, thank your lucky stars. They won't be frank that unless they think you care and might do something about it. Without that trust, they often just leave in quiet frustration in search of someone who "gets them."
Getting in touch with your customer doesn't have to be expensive. While there are plenty of consultants who will gladly take your money for an ounce of insight, you already have plenty of resources that are just flowing through your fingers.
How many customers do you talk to each day? How many times are your products reviewed online? How many of your customers are talking to each other on message boards? How many of your customers sitting in a park using your product are open to a conversation with a friendly stranger? Mining this data just takes time and a little organization.
For example, product reviews are a gold mine of feedback and free marketing. Where else can you hear both what you are doing right and what is going wrong as your product meets the "real" world?
Additionally, responding to frustrated customers shows you care and want to help and that you want to understand their situation and be a solution provider and not just somewhere to throw their money.
While solving the problem is important, your public response shows future customers that if they have a problem, you will be there to help them through it. Yes, trolls exist, the review may be unfair or even untrue, but a friendly and helpful response will show those that read it that you care and will be there to help whenever needed.
"Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning."
The next question is as you listen to your customer, how do you preserve that valuable information?
A while ago we realized that we talk to dozens of customers a day without even capturing what they are telling us. We resolved their problems, said goodbye, and moved on to the next fire.
When we realized the golden opportunities we were missing, we set out to capture the information and feed it back into our business. All it took was a simple one-minute online survey, which our customer service representative would fill out after a call. The survey would feed this valuable information into a database we can mine for valuable customer insights.
Finally, once you have the data in a digestible format, you can convert it into useful stories that help fuel meaningful innovation and build problem-solving solutions and marketing narratives that show we understand them and have solutions to their most pressing needs while catching quality issues before they become problems.
I'll conclude with another story. Several years ago, as parents to two active little boys and a third expected within days, we desperately needed a transportation upgrade. While we visited several dealerships ranging from the high-pressure "don't want to talk to you unless you're buying today" to those myopically extolling their resale value as we tried to corral our energetic offspring who would quickly kill that resale value anyway with dried French fries and melted crayons.
These salespeople seemed to totally miss the growing family with money to spend but still on a budget in need of a car that would keep them safe and comfortable and not necessarily one we could sell – graham cracker crumbs, dried French fries, and all – at a tidy profit a few years later.
We, of course, did find the car (and the salesperson) we needed. As our boys played in the dealership playroom watching Disney movies, a much more in-tune salesperson observed our situation, listened, and provided the solution as he explained the safety and family-friendly features of the car. He sold us not by head games and corporate dogma but by focusing on our needs.
We could have found that same car at any of the other dealers, but "our" salesperson took the time to understand us and our needs and then helped us find a solution. We gladly and gratefully gave him our money.
The best part of the story is that it didn't end there. Until we moved from the area, the dealership provided excellent service, showing that their customer focus went far beyond an individual salesperson. This focus earned them many wholehearted recommendations to friends looking for a quality dealership.
Prices and features only take you so far. You may get one sale with slick salesmanship, but customer devotion must be earned. We give it only to those we can trust and who we feel have our best interests in mind.
"There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money elsewhere."
A successful business is about enticing others to give up their hard-earned cash, hopefully for something worthwhile. Commerce is a two-way exchange of value. Lasting customer devotion develops only when we feel we are getting something from the deal. It costs a lot less to keep a customer than to win them someone else. The way to win and keep them is through a solution-based model where the business and the customer benefit.
About the Author
Stephen "Brent" Willson is a Certified Product Manager who established product management at two companies and a US Air Force veteran with almost 22 years of service. Brent holds a Global MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management and a Bachelor of Arts from Excelsior College.