It's Only Common Sense: You Are Not the Customer!

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Only engineers need computers. --Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation

We know what the customers want and we are building 25,000 square-foot stores to accommodate them.  --CEO of Borders Group

Customers don’t know what they want until we show it to them. --Steve Jobs

Well, I guess one out of three’s not bad. We all now know what happened to Digital and Borders, don’t we? Those quotes sound pretty dumb now, don’t they? But are we any smarter than these guys were at the time? We are often blinded by our own personal prejudices and arrogance to the point where we are so sure we know what our customers want that we don’t bother trying to find out.

I remember once working with an offshore company with a strong American presence. I was working with their factory here in the US. We wanted to make the point that you could buy their products right here in the good old USA instead of having to go to their offshore sites, so we designed their ads featuring an American flag to in the background to represent the message that the product was American-built. We started publishing these ads in July of 2001. If you remember just a few short months later, all ads and just about everything else featured American flags.

After 9/11, American flags were so popular that they became hard to buy; there was even a shortage for a while.  Our ads already had the flags on them. We were ahead of our competitors and we considered this a good thing. That is until the head of marketing (an American) decided that he wanted to change the ads because he felt there were too American flag ads. Yikes! The key here is that he said “he felt.” In other words, he deemed himself the true advertising expert and thus changed the course of a timely and previously very successful campaign based on his gut instinct.

Now, ask yourself: Do you do the same thing? Do you base your advertising on what you think? Or what your family thinks? Or what your friends think? Or do you base advertising on facts, what your customers think?

After all, aren’t you trying to sell to your customers? Aren’t your trying to make products that customers want? Shouldn’t your advertising be focusing on what will appeal to your customers?

Remember that you are not the customer. You are the vendor. You cannot ever be the customer.

I quote from the very fine book Fail Fast or Win Bigby Bernhard Schroeder:

“You cannot assume to know what a customer wants or needs just because you are launching a start-up to serve that customer. Why do so many entrepreneurs assume they know what a customer wants or needs…even when these entrepreneurs themselves don’t fit the target profile? And even if you do fit the target segment profile, don’t assume you are the customer or know more than they do. You don’t. You want to know why? You are not the customer.”

From the same book:

  • Always be researching the marketplace and trends
  • Base your decisions about the customers on as many facts as possible
  • Surround yourself with other people who might have customer insights
  • Relentlessly visit the customer environment.

And yes, you have to find out everything you can about your customers, Asking them is great but you have to go beyond asking them: You have to do your own research. And here’s why.

Again from Schroeder’s book:

“The truth about customers is that they will tell you what they don’t want. Customer truth is a funny thing. They are not always right, but the customer is never wrong. Gather as much information as possible. Listen well and, it is hoped, you will give them what they want. If not they will tell you the truth.”

But you have to do more. You have to visit their facilities, you have to see how your product is handled, what your product does. Then you have to understand what their product does and your product relates to that.

Remember that the focus was, is, and always will be the customer. There is no business without that customer, so you’d better figure out what he wants and then give it to him or you are going to have a hard time being successful. And yes, if you remember nothing else from this column, remember that you are not the customer. It’s only common sense.



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