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Understanding Your Customers Through Their Own Stories

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Many organizations could be wasting scarce resources on unnecessary customer research when there are cheaper and far more effective solutions. There is a danger of using research as a safety net, validating common-sense decisions and supplying relatively obvious information about what customers think and feel.

Some marketers now seem to delegate responsibility for thinking and decision-making to research companies. Yet much of the customer intelligence in these research debriefs already exists within organizations—and in a format that is easier to understand and remember, and is far more engaging, than PowerPoint presentations or documents. It also encourages innovative solutions.

Such customer intelligence exists in the form of customer stories, which can replace the safety net of customer research. They can be a springboard for customer-based innovation.

Stories about your customers are everywhere in your organization, in the chitchat in the lunchroom, in emails, at the coffee machine. Such stories are easy to tap into, and collectively they can increase the levels of customer understanding, insight and creativity in the organization, without expensive research.

Tapping Into the Power of Customer Stories


So how can you collect these customer stories? Just listen, listen, listen. Here are a few tips:

  • Employees that interact directly with customers can use notebooks to write down interesting customer stories as they happen. These can be collected and collated regularly. (At first, you may have to offer rewards to motivate them to do this, but they'll soon see the benefits of this work.)

  • Listen in to call center calls. They are a rich source of customer stories.

  • Try cheap and easy ways to get stories from your customers, such as surveys and questionnaires. Don't worry about the expense of statistically significant approaches or expensive questionnaire design.

  • Leverage the Web. There is far more talk about your organization on the web than you could ever imagine. It's happening now, in chat rooms, special interest groups, consumer Web sites and competitive Web sites.

Bringing Your Customers to Life

Of course, once you have all this rich insight into your customers, the challenge is how to apply it. How can you get inside the head of your customers every time you need to make a decision? Borrow a few fiction-writing techniques:

  • Turn your existing customer segments into real people, by giving them distinguishing characteristics: names, looks, clothes, hobbies, secrets, hopes and fears.

  • Be sure to give your customer segments a life outside their role as your customer. One way of creating a character from your existing data is by stealing characteristics from your friends and family. If someone you know seems to fit what you know about a particular customer segment, you can add their characteristics to the picture you create.

  • Judge ideas and make decisions by testing them against your customer characters. Some writers have imaginary conversations with their characters to help them decide what they should do. You can do the same. Some marketing people imagine their different customers sitting in empty chairs and talk to them, to help them make decisions. No, they are not mad, and it does work!

  • Give your different customer characters different "anchors." An anchor is a stimulus that allows you to slip into the right frame of mind for a different customer character. You decide what it is. Some writers choose different pieces of music, words or picture that represents some aspect of their character.

All of these techniques bring your customers to life, allowing you to make better decisions, based on a more complete customer understanding. These techniques remove the time and expense of research, improve the levels of customer understanding in your organization, and encourage innovative thinking.

Increased customer understanding gives organizations the confidence to take risks. Using customer stories and customer characters is a commonsense approach to marketing, and one that can increase the likelihood of success.


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Neil Davidson is a marketing and communications consultant and writer. Reach him via www.silverdarlings.typepad.com or neildavidson65@gmail.com.

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