When identifying Market Opportunities, Assume You Don’t Know Your Customer


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I recently spoke at a business seminar on the concept of branding. Most people think of branding as a logo or a color palette, but branding is much broader than that. I think of branding as the total experience your customer has with your products and services. But, since I needed to focus my presentation, I focused on the concepts of positioning and messaging.

After my session, I participated in a Q & A that was very informative and I believe very valuable. For over two hours after the event, many people wanted immediate feedback on their business ideas and how to brand them. I was struck by how many wanted advice on their ‘silver bullet’ idea that would guarantee success. Do I have that ‘silver bullet?’ Absolutely! The most effective branding begins with a very fundamental concept, knowing your customer. Do you know your customer? If you quickly answered ‘yes’ to that question, think again. Research tells us that among the most common reasons for most business failures in our country is not knowing your market.

I have researched hundreds of resources that include ideas for branding, positioning, messaging, Customer Lifetime Value (CLV), formulas for qualifying, quantifying, and measuring customer wants and needs and so forth. However, most admit flaws in their theories. There’s no guaranteed method for knowing your customers. No method or formula determines what the customer wants and needs better than just plain asking, observing, and listening. ‘Silver bullet’ advice here…the minute you assume you know your customer is the day you stop listening.

Research the most common reasons for business failures in our country. In the top 5 will be, ‘not knowing your market.’ Don’t ever assume you know your customer, ever.

Take for example Julie Clark the creator and founder of The Baby Einstein video series. When her baby became a toddler, she wanted to expose her to arts and humanities videos suited to her age. She went to several retailers looking for videos and found nothing. She and her husband borrowed a video camera from a friend, grabbed the family cat, a few puppets, drained their savings account and created the Baby Einstein series.

She went to several retailers pitching her product that clearly met an unmet need in a market. After all, every mother needs a video babysitter yet wants her baby to be a genius. All of the retailers she pitched turned her away until she finally went to a trade show and found a retailer who saw how she had capitalized on that unmet need and agreed to stock the videos in several stories. Julie Clark recognized sales of over $100,000 in her first year and over $12million when sold the company 5 years later to Disney.

Let’s examine why Julie Clark succeeded. First, she discovered an unmet need. She had an organic, first hand view of the potential market and capitalized on it. Because she saw herself as a customer, she could imagine how her friends with children might react to her concept. Knowing her potential customers was her ‘silver bullet.’ It’s that simple.

What does it mean to ‘know your customer?’ It means getting into their world. Learn what emotionally motivates them, what psychological triggers motivate their buying decisions and most of all spend time with them, every day, listening.

Back To Basics

What is the best way to listen to your customer? After years of being a consultant to one of the largest software companies in the world (which shall remain nameless in order to protect the innocent from a barrage of high paid lawyers), I have determined that most companies do not use the most basic, most organic and yet most successful means of determining customer needs…get R&D, product managers, and executives in front of customers and listen.

Most of the time we saw these companies make non genuine attempts; sending people onsite who didn’t have the authority to actually sign off on the product requirements, not considering ideas that might be completely outside their own, or inserting their ideas into those collected from their customers. I was amazed at how many of these key decision makers were so certain they knew better than their customers what their needs were.

Even Big Companies Can Also Do It Right

Consider an example of a company who listened and paid attention. We all know that Apple’s IPod has been a success of legendary proportions. Apple’s success didn’t really make sense at the time since most people were able to download music from the internet and personal CD’s to a portable device. Apple did not invent the idea of an IPod, rather, they were willing to listen to the complaint of consumers and the ideas of brought to them by outside sources. They listened to sources that told them people didn’t like downloading music illegally. Consumers also didn’t appreciate the cumbersome means of downloading music onto a device that was a flash drive, not hard drive, making music difficult to store and manage.

They solved the problem and went to market with a portable music device and one message, “a thousand songs in your pocket.” Was it the fantastic branding and messaging that won them insurmountable success? Absolutely not. It was the ability to meet a need in a thirsty market for convenience and a love of music. Of course, the cult following of Apple didn’t hurt either…a blog topic for another day.

The key to branding success is building a product or service that meets unfulfilled needs. But what are the keys to discovering those needs? Formulas? Focus groups? Surveys? Ideation? Sure, all of those can help. But nothing succeeds more than executives, decision makers, product managers, and entrepreneurs sitting in front of their prospective and current customers and asking them questions. Remember to assume you don’t know your customer. If you come to the table with an open mind and are careful to listen, a common and unmet need will be found, every time. God gave all of us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Let’s use them to find that ‘silver bullet’ idea.

desteni lebrant
Marque Partners
-Degree in international Business, Minor in French -Manager, Egghead International Corporate Division - negotiated multimillion dollar joint venture with partner in Tokyo and Europe -Egghead spun off EleKom, Director of Sales, later sold to Clarus Corp. -


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