Know Thy Customer

There are some customers wants or needs that experience can teach you to automatically predict in a way any expert book or how-to article can’t. After almost a decade in customer service, I can tell within 4 seconds when someone walks into a shop I’m working at is specifically looking for a bathroom. I’m not sure I could describe that/those looks, but there are other wants and needs that are more about your business’ success than about whether or not this person just needs a place to relieve themselves that I may be able to help you with.

With the deluge of data produced by the Internet, it probably feels like there are more competitive and bigger barriers in the way of your business’ success than in any other time in history. In a way, that is true; but, there are also ways to utilize the Internet as well as tried-and-true, old-school techniques to make sure you know your customers, know their wants and needs, and even to know them before the customer even knows them. Knowing your customers and providing immediate or even preemptory service, products or assistance is a stand-out way to, well, stand out from the crowd even in the most competitive and densely packed industry.

One of the main ways to stay on top of your customer’s wants and needs is to know your direct and indirect business competition. This takes stepping into their experience, thinking like a customer instead of a person serving customers, and likely some research. Some of this understanding will come from common sense and general experiences you have as a consumer/person in the world yourself. It is also useful to get input from everyone involved in your business on every level because insight and usable perspectives can come from anywhere. If you are particularly high up in your company, as in the owner or general manager or CEO, you are likely to have some amount of disconnect when it comes to customer experience, how they interact with yours and other brands, and so forth. It is especially important to consult those within your company who interact with customers most directly as well as those who utilize services or products comparable to yours; this is a good first step to knowing what is enjoyed about such offerings, what doesn’t work that other brands do, what doesn’t work that you do, how you can improve products, services, and marketing based on specific consumer experiences.

Relying on the experience and understanding of your employees necessitates a diverse employee makeup to ensure a diverse customer perspective. If you have a “type” when it comes to who you employ, you’re more likely to have a “type” when it comes to customers, which, while necessary and expected to some degree for a specific product or service, can also be limiting to your reach and prospective profits. If your company could be doing more to reach women or people of color or people in the Midwest, but you only employ white men from NYC or California, your more likely to overlook that hole in your branding and/or not do enough to bridge the gap.

All that being said, customer service and retail experience, et cetera, may no longer be enough to get your business where you want it to be in terms of numbers and visibility. According to Harvard Business Review, “retail and consumer-facing businesses are rapidly and dramatically changing. Relying on an experienced sales person with deep knowledge of a customer’s preferences is a quaint notion of the past. Increasingly, retailers like CVS, Sam’s Club, and Nordstrom, as well as leaders in other consumer-facing industries like financial services, are using advanced analytics, extensive customer data, and sophisticated information technology to craft personalized” customer service and marketing. At that link, HBR offers a tutorial in “Next Best Offers,” which target customers based on their preferences and direct them to your brand in a sort of matchmaking move.

While the use of customers’ online data is under scrutiny and quickly becoming a hot-button political issue, there are tremendous opportunities to legally and respectfully analyze your potential customers, your competitors and your own company and radically improve customer connections, branding and sales or even just build a brand new business to serve a specific (or general) market.

Using analytics or your own data can reveal who is most likely to want products like yours, what products they’re most likely to also want, or, if you’re building a company, what products and services people in any given area would want or need based on demographics or buying patterns.

Going directly to the customer is also a tried-and-true method for finding out what works and what doesn’t for your customers, as well as what they want that they aren’t being offered. Many will offer ideas without prompting; at any store I’ve worked at, whether it be coffee, vegan or children’s retail, customers will always have a suggestion for something not being carried that they would like to see. This is another reason why it is important to get the perspective from all levels of employees at your company, especially those engaging with your customers directly. They are the ones most likely to know that what your customers want most is better toilet paper in your bathrooms or a product you didn’t think would sell.

This is where steering into the skid, or leaning into the trend, comes in handy; what I mean is, the Internet does not have to mean all negative things like your customers can be more openly critical and find happiness with your competitors more easily. It can also mean directly and quickly engaging with your current customers as well as prospective ones. Digital receipts can be embedded with instantaneous feedback surveys as well as suggestions for products like the ones just purchased; this means that you can get the most accurate feedback possible when the customer’s interaction with your brand is still fresh on their mind.

In general, be open minded. Be open minded about new technologies and how they can help your brand, focusing on the positive potential more than the negative. Be open minded when employees or customers or analytics reveal some perspective on your brand that you may not have considered, that may not be top of your priority list, and be flexible; sometimes the best option may be the one you never would have considered yourself.

The vegan shop I work for started out as a vegan cheese shop specifically. The owner incorporated those products most associated with veganism and the people likely to go vegan, like organic products, expanding to incorporate gluten-free options and everything from dessert to the makings of a four-course vegan meal. She also offers beer because we’re located in hipster Brooklyn. A few weeks ago we noticed that customers were often coming in to purchase sandwiches while their meat-eating friends were going next door to get Bahn Mi sandwiches and so we started offering a vegan Bahn Mi sandwich to boost that shared experience for both our customers and our neighbor’s. In general, she has boosted sales by offering prepared foods in addition to the foods that need to be prepared and even bringing in cold brew coffee instead of just iced.

The first Harry Potter book was rejected by dozens of publishers because they didn’t believe that children’s books were profitable. It is now one of the most successful book series and franchises of all time, with its author making the number 3 spot on Forbes’ celebrity wealth list even though the initial series ended years ago. It is credited both with boosting children’s literacy and jump-starting children’s literature, paving the way for other series like Hunger Games. Sometimes your customers don’t know what they want until you offer it to them and sometimes what you think they won’t want is exactly what they’ve been waiting for.

There are a lot of ways to listen to your customers, and there are even ways to listen when they haven’t even said anything yet. Use all the tools available to you, keep your mind open and flexible and don’t be too quick to dismiss a suggestion or idea before you’ve given it its due consideration.


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