Do You Really Know Who Your Customers Are?
And how to find out if you don't.
“Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.” - Steve Jobs
At this exact moment, you either have customers or you don’t – either way, how do you know you'll have any tomorrow?
It's on us to make that happen.
I have a strong feeling that you’ve poured tons of yourself into your company – and there’s also a good chance that your goal is not just to survive, but also thrive.
Without customers, surviving and thriving are impossible.
So, it makes sense that we’d be as thoughtful about knowing them as deeply as anyone we have an important relationship with (that we want last beyond today).
If that’s so obvious, then what happens to us?
It’s easy to spend so much time working in and on our business that we either don’t fully know who our customers are; or we overestimate how well we actually do.
That’s ok, though - here’s how to get moving in the right direction.
Our business objective tells us where we want to go, and our marketing plan is the system that maps out the directions to get us there.
A critical component that either supercharges the system or keeps it from functioning is customer understanding.
Because, if we don’t really know who they are - we don’t solve real problems with our products and services, our benefits aren’t for anyone and our messaging isn’t to anyone.
Urgent issues never stop hitting our inbox, and constantly block us from spending dedicated time understanding our customers – why they’re using our product or service, why they’re not, what they think of us, how they describe us.
And, not knowing those answers impacts every important decision – here’s why.
What It Feels Like When We Don’t Know
Imagine we run a bakery that’s been in business for about six months – it’s a Wednesday and we have to decide, today, which items to make available online ordering for an upcoming holiday weekend.
Also imagine that this holiday weekend will be the difference between hitting our monthly goal in the first weekend of our most critical month; or not meeting it at all.
While we’re wrapped up in day-to-day issues, it’s easy focus on internal goals. Things like higher margin, easier prep, ingredients on hand. You get the picture. We’ve all been in a similar spot.
None of those considerations are necessarily bad. But they do something important – distract us from the people that will keep us in business for the long-term.
When we face a big question like that, lots of things seem like they matter. But they don’t do a good job predicting if we’ll hit our most important goals of the holiday weekend - driving sales and creating loyal customers.
The items we end up choosing, and the messaging we create to drive attention and commitment are an estimation of what we think will happen.
Customers will ultimately decide if that estimation is right or wrong.
What’s important is making that estimation based on a deep consideration of the customer's wants - and committing to it. That way, we create multiple ways for us to improve our business no matter what.
Either we have the big weekend we were counting on (and know why), or we learned more about our customers – which is a huge step in the right direction.
The ideal situation, of course, is finding ways to learn more about our customers without so much risk – there are some simple ways to get started.
Where To Look
Using one technique alone may not tell you everything, but by exploring at least one (and more ideally), guarantees we’ll find something valuable.
Each technique has advantages, limitations and trade-offs. And that’s ok as long as we’re aware of them.
It can seem intimidating for some to do this kind of outreach, but you’re coming from a sincere place. Feel confident in that.
You’re one of the bold ones that took on the world to start a business so you definitely have the internal wiring to put yourself out there – plus, if they become the worst nightmare imaginable, they’re not for your tribe anyways (and knowing that helps too).
Pro tip – use the word “advice” in your request instead of feedback, input or insights. This simple word will help create a collaborative tone and shared goal.
Here are some proven techniques:
Archived Comments and Feedback Forms
Start with something we probably already have – review the comments from past feedback forms. We’ve usually skimmed them, but read them again more closely and look for common themes.
Phone Call or Virtual Meeting
If we don’t have any usable feedback, or want to learn even more, call up past customers and ask for them to meet you for coffee.
Pro tip – reciprocate their generosity by offering something valuable for their time such as a complimentary or discounted product or service; or something valuable from a key partner (in the bakery example it could be a local coffee house that you partner with for events).
A personal favorite activity of ours is to go talk with them in their own setting (and be observant while listening) – obviously, this doesn’t work for 100% of businesses – but if it’s possible, we’ll find things that would be otherwise hidden.
If we sell a service, visit their workplace if they’re ok with it.
And, they almost always are, especially when they know they’re ideas and inputs are valued – more people want to be helpful more than you actually think.
Email or survey
This works best if we have a list of customers that opted in for a newsletter or other offers.
If we don’t, sending personal email to connect can still work, or an email with a request to complete a survey (use a reward here too).
Email can be a quicker way to generate a higher volume of requests, but the tradeoff is a lower response rate.
We give up some of the equity of a personalized or live communication, but receive the positive tradeoff of getting more unfiltered comments.
We can learn from listening what our customers have to say, and who they’re saying it to.
Check out their comments to other users, groups they’re active in or what users say that they follow.
One of the most important things we can get a glimpse into is what they want to become – and helping them realize that is what our business is here for.
What To Look For
What we find can depend on where we look, of course, but there are common takeaways from each.
Things they love about us.
Not “us” literally as a person, but as a brand. Why they chose our product or service over another.
Besides the fact that we love hearing how awesome our product or service is, the things they love help us prioritize. And, prioritization saves time and money – we can shift more to the strongest products, features, messages, and activities.
Also, why they don’t choose us more often.
Or, why they didn’t end up choosing us at all. More prioritization!
It’s also gives us one of the best learning opportunities for creating better. Learning why our customers choose a substitute for what we provide.
How they describe us to a friend or coworker.
Nothing tells us more about where we stand than this.
There’s our mental picture of who we are; and customers’ opinion of what we are.
Which one is right? – actually both.
What’s important is understanding the parts or our customers’ worldview and experience that shaped their opinion.
The good news is, their description will usually have some positive and negative aspects – but more importantly, will have something new and different for us to think about.
Surviving and Thriving
Finding out who our customers helps form the vision in our minds of whom to design for and message to, which is the fuel behind passionately solving problems and delivering solutions.
Doing it effectively means asking, methodically looking and actively listening. And, we can get started in some places that are easily to reach.
Our small businesses usually don’t have thousands of dollars to pile up stacks of formal customer research like a big company; and honestly, the ROI on focused, disciplined and genuine customer outreach can be least 10x higher.
What we discover directly feeds our product and service choices - value proposition and messaging delighters to double down on or highlight, major pain points that need solving, customer desires nobody’s addressing.
It’s not difficult but it’s hard – and now that we have some actionable tips, the key is scheduling dedicated time (scheduling, not waiting for it to open up!).
All the techniques listed will pay us back. But, developing a lasting mindset with repeatable systems is unbeatable and will exponentially increase that payback.
Because, just like in our other relationships, dedication and consistency will make sure it lasts.
There’s no guarantee that we’ll have customers tomorrow – but there’s a tribe out there that would be more loyal if we knew and served them better, and others that would benefit from joining our tribe.
Have fun spending more time getting closer to your customers – they’re spectacular; and they’ll keep us in business!
 Robert Cialdini, PRE-SUASION: A REVOLUTIONARY WAY TO INFLUENCE AND PERSUADE, 2016