Interlude: We Are Not The Customers You Are Looking For

November 18, 2011

Customer segments(Website to Wonderful will resume next week)

It’s hard when your face doesn’t fit.

Especially when you’re the eager customer.

I got an email recently from a clothes store that I love, with an invitation for customers to take part in a market research exercise at my nearest branch. I got terribly excited, but then I realised they were looking for people a lot younger than me to take part. That was a little bit sad-making. I loved the brand, but I really wasn’t a core customer to them. I even wrote a little note explaining my passion and begging to be let in, but nothing came of it. (Yes, I cared that much, even though I have been on the other side…).

I was genuinely miffed. When I go into their shops, I see women of all ages buying their clothes. And I know that shedloads of women like me go clothes shopping there. But I get the feeling that they’d rather not have customers like me feature all that prominently.

(Incidentally, I spoke to a couple of friends about this, and they said they’d got the same email and just lied their way in!)

Often, we are not the fantasy customers of businesses

We’re a bit wrong, really. We’re older, younger(Facebook, anyone?), fatter, or poorer. Less cool. More cool. OK, this was fashion, and fashion constantly presents an ideal of age, shape and beauty. But I see this mismatch in lots of other places too.

It can be difficult to design for real customers. I’m not talking about ‘right people’ either, which is a little bit different. I am talking about the people who are keen to use your services but aren’t quite the way you envisaged them.

Real customers are a bit of a nightmare, really.

Real customers are messy slobs who leave their clothes on the floor. Real customers do not have Inbox Zero (although they might have Inbox 1500). Real customers had their website designed by their favourite uncle who just taught himself Dreamweaver, and they can’t use another designer because he’ll get upset.

So much of the time, we back away. We design for ideal customers. We write content for people who aren’t customers. We might produce content that mostly appeals to people in the same industry, to our colleagues. We might create for a marketing cut-out person, like a stay-at-home mother aged between 25 and 40 in a very tidy house. Or we may work for a fantasy customer, who is actually a little bit wrong for what we have to offer.

I was thinking about this, because things are noticeably very different when you come across communication that genuinely, genuinely speaks to your situation. It’s different because it feels as though the writer has been in your shoes – they know what you care about, and they understand the gap between the smooth goodlooking exterior, and the internal wrangling that goes on behind the scenes. The difference is like coming home. It’s wonderful.

Being understood matters.

Why don’t we design for reality?

Well, sometimes we are in the business of selling a dream.

Deep down, though, I feel that we don’t get that far.  We are a little scared of getting to know our audiences too well, and the fact that our relationships are mediated by the internet, Twitter and Facebook often makes it easier to keep your distance. Analytic information (hits, bounces, pages viewed) provides data but limited information on what drove those people to click. We end up with our own ideas, which are often a little bit out of touch with raw, jagged reality.

I don’t have a neat ending to this, because I feel I’m still on my own journey of understanding the people that I work with. I do know that every live project, every consultation moves me closer to that. It’s still gradually evolving.

And if you’re reading this, I’d love to know more about you. If you happen to know your readers or customers extremely well, how did you manage that?

Obligatory advertising: I’ve just launched my Winter Strategy Sessions, which are pay-what-its-worth consulting session aimed at making your website a better place to be. Check out the page, and get in touch if you have any questions. I’m also doing a small number of Get It Done website offers, so if you know anyone who really and truly needs a small website fast, and wants to avoid their uncle, point them here.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Justin November 18, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Hi Alison,
I am gradually learning who my customers are. They are usually people that I initially helped for free and later became paying customers. It’s all about building trust in relationships.


Ali Mac November 18, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Hi Justin,
That makes perfect sense, that gradual getting-to-know.  I think it’s also interesting in that relationship when people respond to some part of your work that you maybe didn’t expect, or you placed less value on. 


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