Unconventional Ways to Understand Your Customer

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Forget about keeping up with the Joneses. As a merchant and marketer, your main job is to understand the Joneses. Intimately. As I work with companies around the country on branding and product development projects, I am often astounded at how little they know about their customers. Frequently, that knowledge is as deep as the generic information off the mail list data cards: Women 25-54, HH $50K, mail-order buyer (That just about describes much of the population!).


To really create customer-centric campaigns and products, you need to know about the deeper, important, little things that make your customers and their needs unique. The companies that "get" their customers, that know their quirks and treat them like friends are the ones that win not only market share, but the more important, emotionally charged "share of heart."


Consumer goods companies are great at this. They spend time learning what frustrates their customers. Listerine realized that customers and non-customers alike were bothered by the harshness of their mouthwash despite its germ-fighting properties. The company responded with a gentler citrus formula. Hanes, too, paid attention to the little things (which often turn out to create big markets) and developed tagless T-shirts for those bothered by that aggravating piece of material on the back of shirts.


Futurist Faith Popcorn created a line of desks for the home that meet the needs of young professional women called the "Cottage Cocoon Home Office" after seeing pictures of hundreds of messy but functional home office spaces. She combined comfort with functionality and created furniture that works for women's multifaceted lives. Netflix figured out that video customers were frustrated by Blockbuster's return policy: It wasn't convenient, and it didn't fit their lifestyles. Voila! A new business model was born, and customers have more control over their schedules and can pop videos and DVDs in the mail easily and cheaply.


How can multichannel companies get closer to customers so they can create products that add meaning to their lives? I spoke with Deborah Balch, a former Procter & Gamble marketer and now president of her Colorado-based research company, Deborah Balch Consulting, about methods to get underneath customers' unmet needs. She offered these suggestions:


Make home visits. See what their lives really look like versus what they tell you in a focus group. Depending on your product research needs, look in their closets, cupboards, cars and refrigerators. Be a very intentional observer. Or, if you are a business-to-business firm, go to your customers' places of employment and observe how your product gets used (or not). Observe the ordering process.


"A Fortune 100 snack company did this and discovered that their expensive lunch-sized snack packs were not being bought by the people they thought, dual-income families," Balch said. "Upon visiting homes, they found their snack packs in lots of lower-income households. These moms felt that while they couldn't buy their kids pricey sneakers or video games, they could treat them to fun snacks in their lunch bags. This discovery changed the company's marketing approach."


Take photos. If you can't make personal trips, send disposable cameras to select customers and ask them to take pictures of a particular subject or product usage and mail the camera back to you (This was how Faith Popcorn became inspired to start a furniture line: seeing hundreds of photos of horrendous-looking home office spaces). "Looking at photos and sifting through the details in them can really reveal a lot of recurring themes," Balch said.


Diaries. The Arbitron and Nielsen ratings folks did it this way before they created "Portable People Meters," but good old-fashioned diaries can prove quite helpful in rounding out your understanding of how your product fits into customers' lives. Have customers write down what they were doing and what their mood or emotions were right before they experienced your product, then ask them to capture what they felt afterward.


Another recent example from Balch: "When we employed this diary technique with another snack chip maker, we discovered that their customers knew that the chips were rather unhealthy for them, but that they viewed eating them like they do a decadent dessert indulgence. The chips became their afternoon workday treat. This finding added great insight into their marketing campaign and created a whole new way to view this category."


In addition to these methods, I also recommend:


Strategic questioning. Toss the boring surveys that people don't have time to fill out anyway. Simplify this process. Make time to ask and really listen to just one or two focused questions. Ask customers what their biggest complaint is in relation to your product or offer, or what little things frustrate them in the category you are pursuing. Pay attention to their answers. Take up their cause. Become their champion.


Care about what they care about. Do you read the magazines your customers read? Watch the shows they watch? Attend the events they do? Whether you are in direct to consumer or business to business, immerse yourself in your customers' surroundings. Be curious. When helping launch a teen catalog, I went to the target market's favorite retail shops and coffee shops, read their magazines and hung out with teens themselves. The firsthand cues and details that I observed were much more revealing than the traditional demographic age/sex/income profile that was shared as our customer profile.


Arno Penzias, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, writes: "An invention is the product of a creative or curious mind. Innovation, however, changes customers' lives in some way or the world in which customers experience things."


So, in understanding the Joneses better and in trying to figure out how to change their lives in some innovative manner, you need to put your sociologist, anthropologist and psychologist hats on in addition to your merchandising and marketing ones. Then you not only can keep up with the Joneses, but bring them the goods and services they didn't even know they needed!


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