In more than 20 years of writing for and about a wide variety of companies, I’ve noticed something important. The businesses that flourish are the ones that truly understand their customers – who they are and what they want.

2015_MAY_ALL_MARKETING - How to understand your customers

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Who are your customers?

Learning how to understand your customers might seem simple enough – but the reality can be anything but simple. In fact the answer goes right to the roots of your business.

Many entrepreneurs started up in business because they saw a gap in the market. Perhaps this is how youstarted. You might have tried to find a particular product or service, yet were unable to do so.

Driven by a combination of frustration and initiative, you started your own business to meet the obvious demand. In this case the customer was you – and everybody like you.

Other entrepreneurs see gaps in the market from their own work experience. Perhaps you worked in a large company for a while and noticed that one area of customer demand was consistently being ignored. So you started your own business to fill that niche.

However you started, you will have made assumptions about your customers. Who they are, what they need, how old they are, where they live – and much more. Sometimes those assumptions will be correct, but not always. And as your business grows, so your customers will change and become more diverse.

Staying connected

To stay connected with your customers, you need to properly understand them. You need to build a composite image of your target customer in your head. Then you can align your marketing and advertising with that ‘person’ so you hit the right market.

How do you do that? By talking to them. Now more than ever it’s easy – and necessary – to talk to your customers. Social media channels bring you much closer to the people buying your products and services. This is both scary and rewarding. Good communication will bring your business new clients organically. But if you get it wrong the repercussions can be long-lasting.

So start small. Politely ask your customers what they like about your business – and what they don’t. Make it clear that you really do value their feedback, that you’ll use it to improve your products or services. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Once you’ve built up a good relationship with some of your customers, you can go for more detail. Who are they? How old are they? Where do they live? How did they find out about your product? What would make them buy more? Would they recommend you to their friends?

Consider using a market research company to delve deeper. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, and the results could give you valuable insight.

Never forget that your most vocal customers aren’t always representative of the rest. Many companies have a silent majority of customers. They don’t get involved in market research and won’t give you feedback via social media either. In fact they won’t tell you anything directly.

But they do vote with their cash. So if your revenue goes down after a product refresh, or sales drop when you restructure your services, your customers have noticed – and they don’t like it. You can learn just as much this way as if your customers had spoken to you in person. So add all of this information into the mix.

How to understand your customers

Once you’ve read, heard and analyzed what your customers have to say, switch off. Leave the office for the afternoon and go and sit somewhere quiet, away from all other influences.

Now picture your customer in your head, a composite person made from all the feedback you’ve received. Imagine them sitting opposite you. What would you say to them? What would make that person more likely to buy from your business? You might even try actually talking to them to make the experience more real (which is why it’s a good idea to go somewhere quiet!).

This composite mental image of your customer is sometimes referred to as an avatar. But it doesn’t matter what you call it. Just keep it in your mind whenever you’re thinking up new marketing plans or advertising campaigns. It will help you focus clearly on the most important aspect of your business – the people who want to buy what you are trying to sell.

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