Getting inside your customer’s head

(4min read)

Some businesses start up because the founder sees something he or she would like, but it’s not available in the market - the proverbial ‘gap in the market’.

From my days running the Italian car fansite I know the story of Ferruccio Lamborghini who - so the story goes - didn’t like something about (his) Ferrari and so decided to start producing supercars alongside his tractors. That ended up working for him, although it could be said that Lamborghinis only really started working properly when they were taken over by VW. But that’s another story.

In the early stages of a business, founders can go around talking to people like themselves who, if they’ve identified the right gap, will buy the product. At a certain point though, they will either run out of people like themselves or - if successful - will need to get someone else to do the legwork. And this is where there’s a risk of disconnect. The person coming in to do the sales and/or marketing is not the same as them and will not necessarily see the world the way they do.

An example of this is - again - from the world of Italian cars. When I was editor of the site I went to see the nice guy who ran the Lamborghini dealership in Sydney. He was obviously very experienced in the car world and when we sat down (for fish and chips round the corner) I asked him ‘Why would anybody buy the Murcielago when the Gallardo is only 5km/h slower and 0.5 sec slower 0-100”. Or words to that effect.


At the time the Gallardo (left) was about $400K and the Murcielago $700K - an extra $300K not to be sniffed at I thought. This wasn’t intended to be a silly question, I was genuinely interested in his take. His answer was… you don’t understand super rich people, they don’t care how much it is or what it does, they just want the most expensive one. He even recounted a story of someone coming in and asking this very question, and then buying the most expensive car in the showroom.

(plus read our guest post on neuromarketing to see what - deep down - motivates humans to buy)

I had a similar experience many years earlier when I was working in sales for a large publishing company. We sold reference books to academic and public libraries and big corporates and sometimes these (admittedly large) books cost $600+ each.

But just looking at the book and seeing how much you could buy a similar sized coffee table book for - say $75 - you’d sometimes feel a bit funny asking for that amount of money. Our manager had to explain to us that we couldn’t compare coffee table books to these books. These books were really very specialist ‘repositories’ of information that had a limited market and so they had to be the price they were for the publishing house to make any money. We of course knew this logically, but we still had to have this reinforced by the sales manager. And librarians understood the pricing and were delighted to buy them (this was before you could find the answers to all your questions on the web).


The moral of the story is that, if you are not the perfect clone of the customer, you need to really understand how they think before you can market and/or sell to them.

Whenever we work with a new client we make a point of asking to speak to a handful of their best customers to gain an understanding of what motivates them to buy our client’s product or service. We also want to know why they bought and how they found out about our client and - ideally - a little bit more information about them personally so we can build a ‘persona’ for them. Once we’ve spoken to three or four clients we have a very rough idea of their ‘perfect client’*.

Also, we listen very carefully to how they talk about why they chose our new client and what they like about the product. The way they describe this will inform how we then talk to other potential buyers, as it’s been shown that people react more favourably to something that is written from a customer’s perspective.

This is because you can sometimes get so close to your own product that you lose real world perspective on it. You can then end working out convoluted ways of describing it that you think are the perfect explanation, but that sound like gobbledegook to the customer!

To stop this from happening (and to prevent ‘ivory tower syndrome’), the same publishing house had a rule that absolutely everyone in the company from the CEO down had to go out on a sales visit with a sales rep at least once a year, to see what customers were really like - and how they spoke about the product - in the real world!

So… if you haven’t seen ‘Being John Malkovich’, watch it, and do the same!

*we cover the perfect client concept in our new guide Six Vital Marketing Concepts

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