I am amazed at how many companies have fallen into the habit of regularly insulting their customers.
If I pointed them out, I GUARANTEE that each and every one of them would strenuously object to this accusation, claiming (and, in all likelihood, truly believing) that each and every customer they have is of the utmost value to them and that they work very hard to ensure they’re doing the best to serve them every day.
And I’m sure they do. But unfortunately, many companies torpedo their own efforts to connect with their customers by insulting them — every day, every week, every time they have contact.
Insult #1: Treat your customers as if you understand them, when you don’t.
Trust me — if you’re sitting around the boardroom deciding who your customers are and what’s important to them, you’re wrong. We who own and operate our own companies are even LESS likely than the average man-on-the-street to get this right, because we are so involved with our own product or service that we use language our customers won’t understand, see benefits they won’t see, and overlook shortcomings that will be glaring to anybody outside the company. The fact is, some of your best customers are going to be people you’d never expect, with reasons for buying your product that you’d never imagine.
Insult #2: Treat your customers as if they’re all the same.
It cracks me up to hear companies talk about “their audience.” Well, I do audience research, and I’ll tell you what — you DON’T HAVE ONE AUDIENCE. You have many. (In reality, you have as many as you have individual customers and prospects). But even if you aggregate folks together based on WHY they buy what they do (called attitudinal audience segmentation), you still are going to be left with some very disparate groups — each of which buys what you sell, but for very different reasons.
Yet if you offer your customers and prospects ONE email message, ONE website experience, ONE promotion, you are treating them as if they all care about the same thing — and they don’t, I guarantee it. And what’s more, they can spot a marketing message that’s off-target for them in the blink of an eye. And before you know it, your email’s in the trash and they’re off to another site. Worse, if your messaging isn’t relevant, some likely prospects won’t find you in the first place — because chances are the search terms you’re using for your SEO efforts don’t cover what they’re seeking. (If your SEO is based on “aromatherapy candles” and they’re looking for “brown candles” you’re missing the boat.)
Insult #3: Try to sell them something they won’t want — when you should know better.
Consumers (and businesses) can be pretty forgiving when they’re working with a new company that doesn’t know them yet. They’ll answer questions about what they’re looking for, explain the problem they’re trying to solve, and share their hopes for how a company like yours might be just what they need.
But once a customer or prospect has spent some time developing a relationship with you — shopping in your stores or on your site, ordering from your catalog, commenting on your blog, engaging with you on Twitter — they expect you to remember them.
I have shopped with Williams-Sonoma for years. I have ordered from their catalog, shopped online, bought in-store and even taken their cooking classes. One day last year I received an email from them solely addressing the incredible nature of their new baby food cooking gadget.
Now, my kids are 9 and 14. OK, so I guess I can’t expect Williams-Sonoma to know that (and would probably be kind of creeped out if they did).
But I have NEVER purchased a SINGLE BABY ITEM from them. I don’t subscribe to any parenting magazines, get any baby catalogs, or have a membership card for Babies-R-Us (all things they and other retailers can readily find out about any of us).
So not only did Williams-Sonoma fail to sell me a baby food cooker, they chipped away at what I had taken for granted was a mutually adoring relationship. They must know me and love me, I’m a core multichannel customer. Well, guess not.
Insult #4: Sell yourself short.
I find customers to be very willing to offer up suggestions, criticisms, and any other information that will help their favorite brands and companies do a better job in meeting their needs.
Unfortunately many companies either don’t listen to customer feedback or, equally as bad, are afraid to ask in the first place. It’s not unusual for me to hear from a prospective research client that they don’t want to ask for suggestions, because then people will get irritated when the company doesn’t follow every one.
Guess what? YOU CAN LEARN SOMETHING FROM YOUR CUSTOMERS. I guarantee that you’ll get a suggestion or two that can really make you better — but you have to start by recognizing that you’re not perfect now.
This is harder for some companies than for others. Especially companies that have been doing things a certain way for a long time and are very successful find this a challenging realization.
In my experience, just asking your customers can go a long way to building a bridge between you and the people (or companies) who might consider buying what you have to sell. And, if you actually share what you learned and what you’re doing to improve, it can dramatically reshape your customers’ perspective regarding the kind of company you really are.
Domino’s is making a big splash right now with their campaign that admits, loudly, that their customers think their pizza sucks. It’s clear from the campaign that they’re not just changing their marketing, they’re changing EVERYTHING — their recipes, their operational focus, and their opinion about what’s really important to their customers. And my guess is that they’ll gain huge points with customers and prospects just for admitting that they’re not all-knowing and all-seeing, but instead a company that WOKE UP when they bothered to ask some questions and got slammed.
Now certainly there will be customers who don’t get exactly what they want from you. But guess what? There will always be people out there for whom your company, product or service isn’t a good fit. The better you can understand and communicate what you do well, and the type of buyer who is most likely to find that valuable, the more likely it is that those consumers won’t become sucked in by false promises and then get disappointed.
Results — Not Insults
Understanding your customers better will help you communicate in a more relevant way with them, help them find you more easily, and help them want to engage with you over the long term. (More on being relevant and making your business memorable in this slideshow.)
If you’re not doing this now, give it a try:
- Ask your customers what’s important to them. Do it yourself, have a friend help or get a professional. Ask online, in-store, in social media — wherever you engage with customers and prospects. Let them respond anonymously and they’re more likely to tell you the truth.
- Think about ideas that might be valuable for each of your key audience groups. Got folks who like how your product smells? Scent your catalog or your business cards. Got some who want to gift your product? Add gift wrapping or incorporate a reminder service on your site, or do a post on how to tie the perfect bow.
- Try segmenting your email messaging. If you know a business prospect is in a particular industry, offer up an example of your experience in that industry in particular — or pass along an interesting article that you think might interest them.
- If you’re not collecting data on your customer transactions, START NOW. Anything you can capture — promotional codes used, products purchased, whether they get your newsletter — can be used to understand them better (even if you haven’t figured out how to do that yet).
How might you be insulting your customers without realizing it? What could you do better?
Thomas Wilson says
I needed this article terribly. Once I really sat down and evaluated myself on these points, I saw where my photography company needs to head, and where it’s going to meet problems. Retweeting as I type this!
Thomas, I’m so glad you found it helpful! I can see from your site that you have a lot going on and probably would see some great benefit from segmenting customers based on what aspect of your business they’re interested in. Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can be of any more assistance. Good luck!
stephanie (LSL/Bold Avenue) says
Even though I didn’t comment right away, I’ve been thinking about this post. You make a lot of excellent points, and I think every business can improve in at least one of these areas.
I’m curious about what you had to say regarding Williams-Sonoma trying to sell you something you didn’t want. And I’m going to play devil’s advocate. Even though you hadn’t purchased any baby items from them, was it unreasonable for them to think you may need to buy a baby shower gift at some point – perhaps for a niece or a co-worker? How would they know that you weren’t routinely buying baby stuff from another retailer and just needed to be made aware of their offerings?
Specifically, *why* should they have known better? Only because you hadn’t purchased any baby items from them in the past? Would it have made a difference if they had worded the email differently (i.e. “Great baby gift idea!” or “You love our cookware. Have you seen our product line for new parents?”)
I’m not arguing with you – just interested to know what you have to say!
This is an excellent point, Stephanie! And I think it illustrates the real challenge for marketers. As you point out, it may have been completely unreasonable of me to assume that Williams-Sonoma should have known better — BUT I DID ANYWAY! We have gotten so sensitive to receiving non-relevant messages by email (because it happens all the time, and our in-boxes are clogged with spam), that our expectations are very high when it comes to companies that we actually feel a relationship with. Not everyone may be as vocal as I am about it, but they may feel just as irritated.
Perhaps a better approach would have been for Williams Sonoma to identify if I’m a “gifter” of their products — (I’m not, I keep everything for myself) — and if I was, to send me gifting-related messaging. But I’m not a gifter, which is why even that message probably wouldn’t do it for me.
So as marketers we need to really ensure we’re doing as much as possible to know our audience BEFORE we send these messages. Or, worst case, sending an email that ASKS the recipient what kind of messages they’d like to receive from us. A message like that would have strengthened my bond with Williams-Sonoma, because it shows they really do care about what I want.
I really appreciate your thoughtful point about the post. Thanks for reading and keeping me honest! 🙂