Think Like a Customer

Forget the Golden Rule
by Morgan Leu Parkhurst

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series about communicating with customers.

Treat others the way you would want to be treated. It seems ridiculous to think that one of the most common rules taught to children somehow hinders effective business communication when these children become adults. But it’s true. To be effective at communicating with customers (for example, internal audiences who buy into ideas or messages, or external audiences who buy products or services), one must turn away from this standard rule and focus instead on treating others the way they want to be treated.

Where is the problem in treating others the way we would like to be treated? It lies in the assumption that they are like us. And, in most cases, they aren’t. For example, professional communicators know why they created a message a certain way. But customers aren’t typically privy to this information. As they hear new marketing or media messages, their interpretations and assumptions are likely going to be very different than our own. We can, and often do, take the information we have as communicators for granted. Phrases such as, “Oh, the customer will know what we mean,” and “Well, this is how I would want it handled, if it were me,” are often heard during meetings as deadlines approach. However, comments like these are red flags signaling ineffective communication. When this happens, communicators need to go back to the drawing board and rethink their strategies.

Imposing our own biases on communication messages or deciding how these messages should be interpreted is a dangerous path to walk. I learned this a few years back. While talking with an insurance salesperson, I asked if the hardest part of selling life insurance was getting people to buy something for when they died. The rep shook his head, explaining that the hardest part was convincing spouses the insurance money wasn’t in place for the surviving spouse to live in luxury after the death. He illustrated how he had to drive home the points about insurance being in place to care for survivors, pay for funeral expenses and cover remaining debts. I confess, I never thought of life insurance as a tool for living the high life. Clearly, I wouldn’t have made a very effective insurance salesperson unless I took the time to understand the customer’s point of view, no matter how irrational or incorrect it sounded to me.

Keeping assumptions in check is critical to effectively thinking like a customer. While working in health care marketing, I had the privilege of sitting in on a memory-care training. We were asked what the greatest fear was for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Everyone in the room, medical professionals included, agreed it was the loss of memory—we were wrong. Ultimately, we learned the greatest fear of those with Alzheimer’s diagnoses is the loss of control. Despite having access to detailed memory-care data, we still imposed our own thoughts on another group of people. Had we created all our marketing messages around what we would want if we were patients, in spite of the seemingly logical nature of these messages, we would have been very poor communicators indeed. Our brochures, web sites, and other collateral detailing how we would help preserve a person’s memory would have missed the point entirely.

Why don’t communicators always think like the customers they reach? Many do and do it very well. For those who find it challenging, the reasons include not having enough budget to conduct market research, lack of time to get to know customers more intimately and fear of losing control of the message. By treating customers the way they want to be treated, communicators have to invest time and money in getting to know their audiences better, to push aside personal or team assumptions and to relinquish control. Senior management may also fear this shift as processes are tailored to what customers want, rather than what the company has offered in the past.

Fortunately, making the shift to focusing on what the customer wants can involve small changes. For example, while helping an HR manager plan a benefits meeting for field consultant employees, we figured out that despite our best efforts to create effective print invitations, the employees responded best to electronic communications. So we converted the print invitation into an e-mail invite. We had failed originally to treat our customers, the employees, how they wanted to be treated. In making a relatively small change, we garnered the big difference we needed in responses and meeting attendance.

Thinking like customers means we have to look at the world through their eyes. Tuning in to this mind-set is worth the time and money needed to make it work, as relationships with target audiences strengthen and communication efforts become more effective.

Part two of this series will focus on getting to know customers more intimately to make the shift in mind-set permanent, and how to do this in spite of financial or other challenges. Part three will discuss how to tie these deeper connections into what customers value.