Getting Into the Minds of Your Customers
Determining what a customer needs is the most basic priority for any company offering a product or service, but it can be surprisingly tricky to figure out. Sometimes the customers themselves don’t know what they want or need, and as Steve Jobs noted, even if you ask your them directly, the response you get might not be useful to keeping your business current: “You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new.”*
So how do you gauge something so intangible and changeable? There’s no simple formula or algorithm that applies to each and every business, but there are some best practices that can help you more closely align with your individual customer base’s needs.
Start in the parking lot. Look at your business from a customer’s first point of contact, whether that’s your answering service, website or what a customer sees when they get out of their car in front of your business. Is your “first handshake” a good one? Should a customer be confident about choosing you for a product or service? A little housekeeping can go a long way.
Stand in your customer’s shoes. It can be enlightening to go through your own processes to see if there is a breakdown somewhere. Or ask a friend – i.e. someone not involved with the business – to play the role of a customer and give honest feedback. Customer surveys also can be helpful if you make them quick and easy to fill out. You may consider offering an incentive to get more responses.
See your customer as a partner. Your customers are more than a means to an end. Listen to their feedback, whether positive or negative, and always try to find some value in it. Without your customers, your business wouldn’t exist, and you can learn from them as much as they can learn from you.
Look at your competitors. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, you shouldn’t rip off your competitors. Comparing their offerings with yours, however, might reveal a missing need that you can fill, or a way you can make your own products or services better, like our friend Steve Jobs. He famously took inspiration from the computer mouse he saw at Xerox and made a better one.*
Never stop learning. Read everything you can about your industry; attend webinars, conferences, and seminars as time and money allow; and keep your eyes peeled and your ears open for any information you might stumble upon that could help you succeed with customers. You may find a muse in an unlikely source.
Keep your eyes on the future. Customer needs and markets are constantly evolving. Don’t assume that because something has worked for years, there’s no need to change it. Sometimes you really should “fix” what isn’t broken. Look at current trends and think about where your industry might be five years from today, and especially where and who your customer base might be. Your target audience might change over time.
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