Knowing your customers

A sad fact of business is that many small companies that create products simply don’t think about the customer. They think about how they can get customers to buy, but when it comes to actual product design, they focus on issues such as features, cost, and production rather than usability. What’s often overlooked is how real customers really behave.

Small business owners are even more likely to fall into that trap. After all, they are the ones who are lucky if they can get their products out the door in time to make the deadline for a big order or trade show.

However, there are processes businesses can follow to better understand how customers interact and use their products. One such process involves creating “personas” or archetypes of customers, and then keeping those personas in mind as you design and market your products or services.

The first step of the process, ideally, is to get out of your office and meet with customers or potential customers. To make these interviews most effective:

  1. Go to them: Ideally, see customers in the setting where they’ll be using your product or service. It’s preferable not to just conduct interviews over the phone or in a conference room.
  1. Approach the process with a blank slate: you want to learn as much as you can, not just confirm your pre-conceived notions.
  1. Ask open-ended questions: If you’re designing a new product, ask questions about how your customers currently do whatever your product or service will address.
  1. Observe: Watch how your customers interact with your product (if it’s already developed) or with whatever products they currently use. What do they do first? What seems clumsy? What else is going around them at the same time? From observation, you’ll almost certainly discover ways to enhance your product or service.

Once you interview customers, you’ll have a lot of raw data. Now comes the important part: compiling that information into “personas.” Review all your notes to find the characteristics common to major types of customers. Then, create a few fictional individuals – give them names, ages, personalities, descriptions – to represent customers with those characteristics. At most, create just a handful of personas, representing the major types of customers you serve.

Realistically, as an independent entrepreneur, you may not have the resources to go out and fully implement these data-gathering methods. But even using a highly-simplified version of this process can be a huge help in bettering understanding your customers.

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