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.