Do You Really Know Your Customer?

Posted October 14, 2016

By Lou Altman

If you don’t know your customers, how can you run a successful business? This question's been on my mind recently. Let me give a real-life example.

I used to live a dual life; I worked in financial services in Boston and also did a lot of yard work at my house. I wore a suit by day and grubby clothes by night. That meant two things:

  1. I often had dirt under my fingernails
  2. I drove a truck 62 miles each way to work in Boston

It was a cute little Chevy S-10 pickup with a manual transmission and great gas mileage. I used it frequently to haul stuff to and from the dump, Home Depot, etc. It also had a defect: the oil pressure gauge would blow about every six months.

[Click to read more by Lou Altman: Online Reviews & Customer Service—A Matter of Perspective]

The local Chevy dealership was stuck fixing the gauge under warranty each time each time it blew up. And after eight or nine (free) repairs one of the service guys said to me, “Why are you wasting your time with this little thing? I have a full-sized truck out there loaded to the snots.” Yes that's a direct quote (and a separate lesson in customer service right there).

After I explained to him that I drive 125 miles to-and-from work each day and bought the truck for the 30 MPG, I realized that either he really didn’t know much about me or he didn’t care. I’ll not speculate which was true, but I will state again—emphatically—if you don’t know your customers how can your business be successful?

Do You Really Know Your Customer?

Exploring Customer Identity

A successful business knows and understands its customers. Ask yourself the following: What do your customers look like? What do they sound like? What do they want? What do they like, dislike, admire, fear, respect? Think about these questions for a few minutes, make some notes, and form an image. Once you know who your customers are, you’ll marvel at the ease with which you can engage in a successful long-term relationship with them. We’ll circle back to this point shortly.

During my financial services career, clients would call in to redeem money. When I created my second asset retention campaign, I trained staff to ask those clients one fundamental question: “Have your goals that prompted you to invest with us, changed?” We tied their investment to their goal. That may seem obvious, but people often make rash, emotional decisions when stock and bond markets do the unexpected.

The first-contact representative would list the client’s goals in our customer relationship management software. That allowed any subsequent representative to re-visit those goals. How do you find out your customer’s goal? Well, you could just ask…which brings us back to the questions above.

Customer Personas Matter

When you ask those questions, you create a customer persona and begin to really understand the person behind the transaction. You also gain a huge advantage over your competition; simply position your company as the provider that serves that kind of customer. Here’s an example of a customer persona we created using our customer persona questionnaire (PDF).

A 53-year-old telecom/IT person who earns $140,000/year combined income. She has two kids, a pet, lives in a three- or-four bedroom house and takes two or three weeks’ vacation a year, usually somewhere warm in the winter because she lives in the upper half of the U.S. Her biggest accomplishments include the position she achieved at work and recognition for community work. She fears job loss and devastating medical scenarios. She looks for honesty, integrity, and customer support in vendors. If you gave her $1,000 and a day off, she would save half the money for her kid’s college and spend the rest on a family activity.

Now, that’s a deep assessment. Most of it is pretty standard (not to minimize my clients). You truly know your customers when you know what they would do with $1,000 and a day off. And how do you find this out? You listen. Engage in a discussion but don’t ask directly.

You can glean plenty of information from what’s not being said, and you can find opportunities to build rapport and to help the person open up. Let’s be candid; we ALL love to talk about ourselves (otherwise social media would be a non-starter). When you get your customers talking, it creates a better picture of who they are and what they need. And you’ll pick up information that will serve your business in the future.

Customer Segmenting Matters, Too

"But Lou," I hear you cry. "We have a variety of different kinds of customers, how do we handle that?" Short answer: segmentation. Longer answer—it depends on the segments. If your business has 30,000,000 customers it might be challenging. My first financial services company had the retail support line, the registered representative support line (they worked for the company), and the outside Broker/Dealer support line.

We fielded thousands of calls a day and, while all three groups answered the same kinds of questions, each customer segment had a different context for asking the questions. Understanding their perspective and what they needed was critical for success. To do this successfully you must know your customer. Engage and listen closely.

I currently have two segments within my satellite communication company: government and non-government. Both segments share similarities, and yet the buyers have different perspectives. When the phone rings or I meet someone in person, I need to understand which client I'm serving.

So ask customer persona questions. Know who you're talking to. Invest in, and build the relationship. We all buy from people that we know, like, and trust. Knowing your customer is the absolute best way for you to be known, liked, and trusted.

[Don’t miss this article: Choosing the Right Tech for Amazing Customer Experiences]

Lou Altman, CEO and lead trainer at Next Level, has designed and managed multi-million dollar campaigns, lead teams to record sales, and built businesses. Lou is direct, passionate, intense, silly, and he has an enormous heart. He's focused on teaching and sharing the best ways to improve customer service everywhere.

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