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!

The Marketing Problem You Don't Know You Have

When it comes to getting better marketing results, most companies I talk to think they have an execution problem.  i.e. if only they could convert more free trial users to paying customers, sales would spike.  And so they start testing a bunch of tactics - PPC campaigns, landing page tests, etc.... While eventually they will come to some conclusions, the problem with this approach is that it leaves a lot to trial and error, which can be both costly and time consuming.

Here's an example from my own experience:

A startup called Blocko* is trying to stand out from their main competitor, Lego, which has great brand recognition and deep marketing dollars.  Blocko is good at getting traffic to its website but the problem as they see it is creating the right triggers for people to order their products online.  Their question to me was "what kind of messaging do we need to convert more prospects into customers?"

The marketing team had lots of ideas for creative that would be entertaining and distinctive, and they had a great understanding of how to run and measure split test email campaigns.  However, when I asked the folks in the company "why do people choose Blocko over Lego?", I didn't receive a consistent answer.  Half the people I talked to didn't know, a quarter cited market research on toy buyers, and the other quarter had an instinctive guess based on their experience or what they heard in the hallways.

So, why did this problem exist in the first place?  It's usually because of one (or several) of these reasons:

  1. Available market research is outdated: The company did some market research when they first started spending money on marketing, but it was 3 years ago and is no longer relevant.
  2. Customer research hasn't been done: The company didn't do any customer research at all, because they didn't have budget, didn't think it was important, or thought they knew enough about their customers through their experience getting the company off the ground.
  3. Customer insights are not specific enough: The marketing team has some market research but it's generalized for the industry or only covers demographics and not real insights into how customer buy, what their motivations are, what cultural markers distinguish them from others, and how customers perceive products in this category.
  4. Customer insights have not been collected in a systematic way: The marketing team is not spending any time actually talking to their customers and documenting their insights for reference and validation.

So with this in mind, what are some signs you may have a customer insights problem and not a marketing execution problem?  Here are some questions to consider:

  1. Do you know what your target customer is using/doing now that would be replaced by using your product or service?
  2. If your customer was asked to describe your product to a colleague, do you know what they would say?
  3. What problem does your product/service solve for your customer?  What is that worth to them?  How do they measure that worth - i.e. time, dollars, something else?
  4. How does your product/service make your customer feel?  How do they feel when they are doing business with your company?
  5. Who does your customer take advice from when it comes to buying a product like yours?  Where do they get that advice?  Does this change  as they get further along in their purchasing process?
  6. Where do your customers hang out, both online and in real-life?  If they are on Facebook, what do they use it for?  Do they go to online forums and if they do, what do they do there? What conferences do they go to?
  7. What kind of communication devices does your customer use?  Do they look for information differently on their smartphone then they do on their laptop?

If you are fuzzy on any of these answers, you may want to spend some more time getting to know your customer.  There are lots of ways you can do this, ranging from surveys to ethnographic research to customer advisory panels to simply taking customers out for dinner, knowing what to ask and how to listen. You'll be surprised at what you may find.

*Fictitious name borrowed from The Simpsons to protect the innocent.

Your Customer’s Buyer Journey Doesn’t Stop at The Point of Purchase

A few months ago I had the unfortunate luck to leave valuables behind in a taxi not once, but twice, within the span of one week. (Clearly a sign I needed to slow down!). I used a different taxi app each time to hail my cab and noticed some interesting differences in how both companies thought about their customers.

The first time, my house keys fell out of my pocket into the taxi but I only realized it hours later, when I was heading home.  I tried looking for a contact option for the taxi driver which is available in the app when you make a booking.  I discovered that option no longer appeared once I had made my purchase. After some searching, I ended up having to send an email to a generic address found on the website but because of the late hour, no one was available to help.

The second time, I was using a different taxi app, and left an expensive gift bag in the back seat of the taxi, again only realizing it a few hours later.  I frantically opened up the app, happy to find an icon for lost property and a well though out user experience that let me choose which journey I had left my belongings in, and a simple button to call the taxi driver as well as report the lost property to the company, all within the app.  Within an hour, I was reunited with my bag.

Mapping customer use cases post-purchase

This is much more than a story about good customer service.  My experience highlighted how well one company had thought about their customers post-purchase, considering typical use cases (turns out I am not the only absent minded cab passenger) and future purchase considerations such as:

  • How am I using the service?
  • What would make me want to use this service again?
  • Who would I tell about my experience?
  • Where would this communication happen?
  • How would my experience influence other buyers?
  • What would it take for me to recommend this service to others?
  • What would cause me to switch to a competitor?

We know that many marketers take the time to map the buying behaviour of their target customers, in order to develop the right messaging and programs to get a prospect's attention and nurture them along their buying decision until they are ready to make a purchase.  We've all seen the traditional marketing funnel. However, these approaches tend to focus on customer acquisition, and don't address factors that impact customer retention, churn and advocacy. Going the extra mile to look at customer buying behaviour past the point of purchase is important for many reasons.

Here are 3 that I've experienced firsthand:

Prospective customers are highly influenced by the experience of existing customers.  People have always consulted their peers, friends or family before making a purchasing decision, but now, this information is available on a completely different scale. User forum postings and customer reviews are easy to access online, and new social tools can tell you who in your social graph has recommended or purchased a product you are considering.

It gets expensive to have to continually replace your customers. Once a customer purchases a product or service, they have a choice to continue to use that product or switch to an alternative. Take the example of a software-as-a-service subscription that bills customers monthly: customers have monthly opportunities to renew their subscription or cancel. Understanding how they come to this decision can provide some valuable insights that marketers can use to improve customer retention.

Your happy customers can extend the work of your marketing team.  In this age of pervasive communication, it can be tough for a company to be present everywhere conversations about your brand are taking place.  Knowing what it takes to turn a customer into a raving fan, and giving them opportunities to do so can amplify the efforts of your own marketing programs.