We Must Know Our Customers

Businesses of all sizes have customers.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be in business!  But having customers and knowing our customers are two different things.  Regardless of our business, we must know our customers.

When small towns emerged in this country and the usual main street of shops were created, merchants really knew their customers.  After all, towns were small and customers were neighbors and residents of the town.  It was easy to understand the needs and concerns of customers since all were part of the same community.  As growth exploded after WW II and national chain stores emerged, literally “knowing” customers became more challenging as a company’s headquarters were located away from the ultimate point of sale.  But still, people who worked in the shops were neighbors of the customers who lived in the community.  Not perfect but it still worked if they fed information back to decision makers.  With the advent of online shopping, the global market place, and merging of different kinds of businesses into one, knowing the customer has become ever more challenging.

Most small businesses today believe they understand their customers.  But do they?  To be successful, we need to act more like those main street merchants a hundred years ago and really walk a mile in their shoes.  We must talk to our customers.  This can take the form of formal research like focus groups or surveys, or just plainly interacting with them during the regular course of business.  Ask them what they like about our products and services, what they would like we to do differently, and what we do that drives them nuts.  By the way, I’ll bet they’ll say something about the ordering and billing process but this is all part of the product, isn’t it?

Sometimes our customers don’t know what they want us to do differently.  Apple is famous for not doing customer research but instead inventing what they think their customers want and presenting it to the world.  Behold the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.  Customers in a focus group or quantitative survey never described these devices.  But Apple uniquely knows their customers well enough to create something new and fit a need.  Likewise, we need to understand our customers’ business or personal needs well enough that even if they can’t articulate what they want new from us or what they want us to do differently, we can figure it out and create something.

We need to “live in the skin” of our customers to really understand their needs.  The best business people are those that uniquely can translate this understanding into goods and services that meet these stated or unstated needs.  Despite the evolution of business over time, one constant remains: to be successful, we must know our customers.

— Steve Odland

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