Do You Know Your Customers?

“So how do you give your customers what they want?”

Good question… and just one of many like it that I received after last week’s article about changing your business to provide better value to your customers. And it’s not an inconsequential question — it’s THE question, the one that goes straight to the heart of the whole issue of creating better value for customers. It’s not enough to talk about it: If you’re actually going to create a company that thrives by providing value, you have to make good on the promises you make.

So how do you increase the value that you provide to your customers? Simple: Know your customer.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. A lot easier said than done, right? Wrong.

Knowing your customers doesn’t necessarily have to mean installing complicated personalization or data-mining software, conducting an endless series of focus groups, or conducting complicated mathematical analyses on various audience demographics. Nope, knowing your customer can be as simple as taking the time to observe their behavior, putting yourself in their shoes for an afternoon, or (God forbid!) going out and asking them about their experiences. Being the customer, understanding their concerns, and simply experiencing your company the way others experience it can go a long way toward helping you understand your customers.

A Web of Data

How do you do this? Let’s look at the Web for an easy example. Do you really know what your customers are doing on your site? Really? And I don’t mean how many hits your site is getting — that’s basically irrelevant. What I mean is: Where are they entering the site? Where are they leaving from? How much time do they spend on different pages? What features are they using the most? What features aren’t they using?

How do you know this stuff? Look at the traffic on a regular basis. Using an analysis program such as WebTrends, run through the log files and take some time to analyze them, looking for patterns rather than just hit numbers. Look at the traffic patterns side by side with a map of your site’s architecture. Are there paths that people aren’t following? Are there places where they leave from that seem to be dead ends? What pages get the most use? What pages are used the least?

This may seem like Web 101… and it is. But it amazes me how many companies I run into that don’t take the time to regularly analyze their site traffic to understand their customers. Because most companies’ sites usually contain all the information about that company, analyzing what interests people on the site can also give you a very clear view as to what interests them about the company. It’s almost like a 24/7/365 focus group, providing continuous feedback.

Firsthand Knowledge

But that’s secondhand information. The other thing you should be doing is actually asking your customers about their experiences with your company. This doesn’t have to mean complicated survey forms or big studies; in fact, those methods might actually separate you from the information that you want to gather. No, what I mean is to actually talk to your customers — either by email or phone — and ask them about their experiences. A few in-depth inquiries (taken from email addresses that you so diligently collect already) can tell you a lot more than wide-ranging studies.

Go to your customer-support databases and grab a few email addresses. Ask the customers if they found what they were looking for, invite them to criticize your site, ask for suggestions. You’ll not only build some great goodwill through your inquiries but also gather invaluable information about the experience of what it’s like to be a customer of your site. If you have a physical store or other opportunities to interact with your customers offline, do so — you’ll probably be amazed at what you find out.

Finally, put yourself in your customer’s shoes: Try going to your site as a customer would. Give yourself a task — finding information about a product, buying something, asking a question — and pay careful attention to the entire experience. How long did it take you to find the information you went searching for? How easy was it to buy? Did your question get answered in a timely manner? What impression did you come away with?

Yes, this all sounds like amazingly simple stuff. But if you go out on the Web, you know that a lot of sites probably didn’t spend the basic time necessary to discover what the experience of being a customer is like. If they did, they probably wouldn’t do a lot of the stupid things that so many sites seem to do.

So often we get so close to the work we’re involved with that we forget what it’s like to be an outsider. But if we’re going to create compelling experiences, we need to be able to reclaim that sense of newness and try to experience things again for the first time. We do it all the time with other companies we interact with: You don’t have to be an “interface design specialist” to know when a site sucks. You just know.

So try putting yourself in your customer’s shoes for a change, and see what it’s like. You may be surprised by what you find.

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