The Biggest Myth About Talking to Your Customers

I have to get something off my chest. I love Apple products. I was inspired by Steve Jobs like millions of others. But there is one thing he said that is driving me crazy.  Actually, it's not what he said, but how people interpret what he said.

I'm talking about his famous quote about how it's not the consumer's job to know what he/she wants.

The reason it's driving me crazy is because I constantly hear people interpret this to mean that smart marketers don't need to talk to their customers.  And then they go out and send marketing emails or create campaigns that don't resonate with anyone and wonder what went wrong.

The thing is, there's a difference between asking your customers what they want and understanding who they are.  Talking to your customers can be a great way to understand their environment - you can learn what keeps them up at night, what is a headache for them, what other products they are buying that they may be comparing your products to, and the list goes on.

I recently interviewed a guy about buying a mattress, as part of some great training I did with the folks at 37Signals and The Re-Wired Group.  At the beginning of our conversation, the guy mentioned that the first mattress he tried was $3,000 and that his initial reaction was to say he would never spend that kind of money on a mattress. Never! Yet 5 days and a dozen mattresses later, that's exactly the one he ended up buying.  Some of the best clues I got about what made him choose that particular one was through his body language - he'd relax and smile when he was recalling certain details, and frown or tense up around others.

If I had just surveyed him prior to buying the mattress, I would have gotten lots of data, yes, but it would have been the wrong data because what he thought he was going to do was different than what he did.  If I had just looked at our mattress email open rates, click throughs and conversions, I'd be guessing at what messaging and triggers would help me get better results. I'd get there eventually (hopefully) but it would take a lot of trial and error.

When you talk to your customers, think of yourself as a detective, not an order taker. You should listen to them to get clues about how they inform themselves, what sorts of beliefs get them to act in a particular way, where they gather, and who they listen to.

I also interviewed a bunch of people who recently subscribed to Netflix.  It turned out that many of them decided to subscribe after seeing it in use at a friend's house.  But there was a big gap between when they decided they liked it, and when they actually decided to buy it - sometimes weeks or even months.  It made me think about what Netflix could do inside their product so that if you were at a friend's house and you loved Netflix, your friend could sign you up right then and there without you having to go to their website.  The people I interviewed didn't ask for that feature, but there were clear patterns around a particular friction point that was prolonging their decision to act.

If you are selling a product to people *exactly* like you, you may have a head start in understanding who you are selling to.  But in many cases, people are marketing products to customers who are nothing like them, yet making assumptions about them based on their own behaviours.  Even in cases where you think you are like your customer, you may be different in some important ways, or there may be multiple types of customers, of which you are only one.

So, stop reading this blog post.  Get up and line up some conversations with customers and let me know what you find out as a result!