Every summer, my parents used to bundle the family into the car for our eagerly anticipated vacation to our rental cottage in lake country. We loved the wild beauty of the place, the feel that it was tucked into a little corner of the world that time had forgotten.
This was especially true of the picturesque little town nearby, where small mom-and-pop stores lined Main Street. And the best of the bunch was the local “five and dime,” an eclectic little store called Joe’s Emporium. Stepping into Joe’s was an adventure. You didn’t shop, you explored. I still remember the scents, a delightful blend of cotton candy, wood and machine oil that evoked something mysterious . . . something magical.
Joe was the most popular guy in town, always dressed in old jeans and a faded shirt, a smile perpetually on his face and twinkle in his eye. He had a memory like an elephant, always treating our family like old friends — even though he only saw us once a year. And that was why Joe’s Emporium was able to fight off the eventual onslaught of the bigger box retailers when so many others succumbed. He knew and cared deeply for his customers and that respect and appreciation was returned in equal measure.
Despite clamouring for more customer-centric business practices or the mining of Big Data, the sad fact is that old Joe forgot more about connecting with customers than most businesses will ever know. The challenge today is to connect and understand our customers with the intimacy that came so easily for Joe.
Here are some thoughts and questions that I’ve selected from a Harvard Business Review article from nearly ten years ago that have proved helpful for several ofthe companies with which I work. May they help you as well.
1. Which customers use or purchase our product in the most unusual way?
2. Who uses our product in ways we never expected or intended?
3. Do any customers need vastly more or less sales and service attention?
4. Who uses our products or services in surprisingly large quantities?
5. Who else is dealing with the same generic problem as we? Can we copy them?
6. What other products do our customers use in addition to ours? Opportunities?
7. What’s the largest barrier to use for our product or service? Could we eliminate it?
There’s really no substitute for the insight gained through direct customer experience. One of the businesses with which I’m familiar recently opened a retail location simply to gain that deeper connection and insight in support of their product line. A little over the top perhaps, but the benefit of establishing that connection and daily insight is paying off in spades. The bottom line? Despite the lure and attraction of new advances in technology and tools, there’s nothing like direct communication and contact to build customer knowledge and insight. Use the newer tools, but don’t substitute that for the real thing.