The Take-a-Customer-to-Lunch Challenge

In “Get to Know Your Customers Individually,” I outlined the process for looking beyond aggregate survey data and using verbatim comments to see the individuals behind the trends.

Again, do you know your customers? How many of them do you know by name? How many would you recognize in a crowded room? Reading verbatim survey comments is hard, but now I’m challenging you to do something even harder: meet a customer face to face.

I conducted a lot of online transactions last week, in an attempt to conquer a massive to-do list. Shopping. Banking. Bill payment. Prescription ordering. I was the consumer, and I was disappointed. Very few transactions I attempted were easy. Most of the sites I visited don’t know what I need or don’t care. By the end of the week, I’d ditched the computer and returned to doing things the old-fashioned way: by phone, by mail, and (can you believe it?) in person.

After convincing myself not to throw my computer out the window, I spent time wondering what had happened. Why, this late in the game, are there still so many glitches in the online experience? The answers varies by site: budget cuts, poor design, bad management decision, a lack of usability testing. At the heart of it all, I reached my original conclusion: They either don’t know what I need or don’t care.

Hence, the challenge to meet a customer face to face. Not via email or telephone. Not via survey or focus group. Take someone to lunch. If you work for a retail establishment, get out on the floor, especially if you typically spend your time in the back office.

There’s no substitute for talking to a customer face to face. If you spend enough time, you’ll learn who they are and why they’re transacting with you. You can observe their body language. You’ll hear, in their own words, what they like and don’t like about your business. You learn how your product fits into their businesses or personal lives.

We’re so busy heralding the advanced customer profiling, behavioral trending, and data collection the Web makes possible that we’ve overlooked a real danger: A generation of marketers out there has never met a single customer face to face. They started their careers in an environment where customers fit neatly into predefined demographic or behavioral categories. Customers who don’t fit neatly often don’t matter. Is it any wonder customer experience suffers as a result?

When you only know your customers through their categorization into demographic groups, you lose the ability to actually care about the customer. “Caring” comes to mean constantly weighing the cost benefit of giving customers what they collectively want. The customer is the afterthought. You care about them only to the extent you must to keep them.

Does the thought of taking a virtual customer to lunch seem ridiculous? It’s not all that hard, but it does require some determination. After all, your schedule is probably tight, it would take time to find the right customer, and how would you explain the reason for the meeting, anyway? Well, it doesn’t have to be lunch. Volunteer to spend some time in your company’s booth at the next trade show. Perhaps there’s a networking event your customers are likely attend. Get creative. But do it.

Back in 1998, I worked for a fledgling company that sold data online. It wasn’t unusual for a customer to spend $15 or less per month. My task was to review price and packaging to see how we could increase the average revenue per customer. Survey results indicated customers wanted more data types and lower prices. Verbatim comments shed some light on how customers used our data to serve their own clients.

It wasn’t until I took a customer to lunch that I started to put it all together. Because our prices were lower than our competitors, I saw no need to lower them further. After meeting a few customers over lunch and at our trade show booth, I heard something new. These customers didn’t choose between us and our competitors. They chose between us and nothing at all. The insight allowed me to refine my research and, eventually, to develop a different pricing strategy.

Would I have figured this out over time without speaking with a customer in person? Definitely. But I gained something else from the experience. I started to care. I got in touch with our market at a deeper level by feeling their pressures and understanding their choices.

Try it — you’ll see. The customer becomes more than a credit card number, and your decisions will reflect this new vision.

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