We are all on a quest to better understand customers. The sobering truth is most brands only have a very narrow view of them.
It's understandable. If a customer bought something from you five months ago, was that the last interaction you had with her? Maybe you followed up with an email or tried to target her with an ad. Did she engage with you? Whether you don't have enough rich first-party data, too much stale third-party data or not enough real-time behavior data, this is a hard problem to solve. It's like trying to squeeze a glass of orange juice when you have just a thin slice of orange. But what if you had the whole orange?
There is a natural perimeter of ignorance when it comes to understanding your customer. "If we could just understand everything there is about the customer" is a common lament. However, if you knew more about your customer, what would you do with that information? How would this help you deliver a smarter, better, more relevant customer experience? How would this help you grow?
Before we get to all of the exciting things we can do if we knew more, we need to zoom out and focus on empathy. While that may seem odd coming from a "product person," I believe one of the keys to building great products (and businesses) is to have empathy for the customer. One way to do this is to stand in the pain of the customer. This means truly understanding what adds value to their lives. This means putting customers first.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Most companies fall into two camps: They are either a product-centric organization or a customer-centric organization. A product-centric organization is focused on building the best product. When product is the North Star, everything is driven by it. The company is organized by product P&L divisions, people are rewarded for new product developments, and the process is typically a product waterfall methodology.
A customer-centric organization is very different—that organization is focused on solving the customer's hardest and largest problems. It is focused on creating the maximum value for the customer in an elegant way. The culture is about identifying customer pain and searching for new ways to solve for it and add value. The company is organized by customer segments with P&Ls. People are rewarded for having deep insights into the customer. And, most importantly, a Design Thinking framework is used to build products that customers will love.
First coined by British Professor of Design Research L. Bruce Archer at the Royal College of Art in 1965, Design Thinking has emerged as one of the best ways to creatively solve problems. While it's more about the cognitive process, this is how I use Design Thinking:
1. Question: The problem with conventional wisdom is it's conventional. We need to challenge this by questioning everything. Start with a blank slate approach and ask a big, provocative question focused on effectiveness rather than on a small, incremental question about efficiency.
2. Discover: Discovery is perhaps the most difficult thing to do well. It requires sitting down with current or prospective customers to discover their pain. This can be done in lots of ways—doing their jobs, creating empathy through asking questions, actively listening and setting aside your bias. This isn't about selling them on your ideas; this is about standing in the customer's pain and identifying what they actually need versus what they want.
3. Ideate: This is the fun part! Get your team together and brainstorm. If you had no constraints/$1 billion/applied magic, how would you solve your customers' pain? Remove your mental shackles.
4. Prototype: This is one of the most critical steps. Build something quickly that can potentially solve the pain. The key is fast. This doesn't need to be a fully baked product. It doesn't even need to be a product. It could be a sketch, a visualization, a wire frame, a mock, a scenario—whatever allows someone to experience the solution.
5. Learn: Now go back to the customer and get feedback. What worked? What didn't work? It's OK that you didn't get it all right. Process this data. Feedback is a gift.
6. Iterate: With your new learnings, get the team back together and iterate—quickly. When you view everything through a customer-centric lens, you can move rapidly to cancel out the noise and focus as much as possible on the signals that add value. Repeat steps 4, 5 and 6 until you have a minimally viable product (MVP) that a customer feels will solve a pain point and thus derive true value. Only then will there be a value exchange: The customer will value your product enough to pay you for it.
Don't be wedded to any particular idea but be committed to the goal of solving customer pain. Only then can you better understand your customers.