It’s a trap into which marketers of all kinds fall: assuming your customers are just like you in their preferences, desires, and buying characteristics. It can happen because we lack information to figure out what customers are really like or because our own inherent biases cause us to ignore information that would contradict our assumptions.
In a series of studies (published in the AMA Journals), Hattula, Herzog, Dahl and Reinecke found that marketers putting themselves in their “customers’ shoes” were more likely to assume their customer is just like them rather than the generally expected outcome that they would understand their customer’s needs and desires even better.
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Hattula noted, “That tendency [toward egocentrism] is so strong that we’re willing to ignore objective data when we make predictions about others.”
You Are Not Your Customers
Yes, he is saying that in our data-driven world, the more empathetic (and maybe more expert) we become, the more likely we are to just ignore the data and use our own intuition to make assumptions about our customers. If you’ve been in a marketing organization for any length of time, this should not surprise you (though it may be hard to admit).
Simply put: The more you assume your customer is just like you, the farther you get from building a relationship with and serving that customer.
In our daily lives, we develop relationships fully realizing that the people with whom we become friends or partners or any other form of relationship are not exactly like us. Success in each relationship requires that we develop an understanding of what drives the other person and how we fit into their lives—and how they fit into ours.
Consider this: You walk into a room, and a man approaches you. He tells you why he is in that room (at that event or party) and then proceeds to tell you he knows you must be there for the same reason. Maybe he harangues you to engage in ways that suit him well or to help him meet the people he wants to meet. You can tell pretty quickly this person had no interest in you or your needs.
When you make the assumption that your customer is just like you, you start off your relationship with that customer on the footing I described in the previous paragraph: you alienate your customer and make them feel like you have no real interest in meeting their needs.
This can be exacerbated by the common marketing practice of developing customer personas. Personas are just descriptions of prototypical customer types. If the egocentricity bias that Hattula describes enters your persona development process, the personas can start to look an awful lot like the people who are developing them (One way to check this is to ask someone who knows you but was not involved in the process to look at the persona and describe how much like you it is—as long as you can trust that person to give an honest answer.).
The Importance of Data
Marketing has become, for the most part, a data-driven endeavor. Marketers work hard to gather and analyze data on the actions of those who engage with the company, on how those actions lead to (or don’t lead to) sales, on the costs and ROI of specific marketing activities, on how customer usage leads to repeat sales, and on so many more things in your everyday activities. One of the things on which marketers have relied for a very long time is market research. Assuming it uses well-designed research, the data gathered can inform many marketing decisions and challenge many assumptions.
But challenging assumptions, especially within an organization, is very hard. When the data clearly contradicts any assumption we make about our customers—from buying habits to feature preferences—Hattula’s study shows we tend to just ignore the data—even when we know the best course of action is to adjust our own assumptions to match the data.
Where Does This Lead?
Hattula’s study suggests that employees who are disengaged from customers are in the best position to understand objectively what the data they receive is telling them.
My own experience says that getting a direct, personal understanding of your customer, including developing empathy (maybe by putting yourself in your customer’s proverbial shoes), gives you insights that data just can’t.
The irony is that in order to truly understand your customer well, you need to do a good job of both getting closer to them and distancing yourself from them. You need to:
- Gain direct exposure, understanding and empathy with your typical customer’s needs, preferences and desires.
- Ensure you are gathering good, unbiased data on customers’ needs, preferences, and desires
- Pay close attention to even the smallest hint of contradiction between your empathetic understanding and what the data is telling you.
- Get objective viewpoints that can tell you when your assumptions about your customers are really just a projection of your own needs, preferences, and desires.
- Have the courage to challenge organizational assumptions about your customers.
Did I promise this would be easy? It’s not.
But if you want to stay close to your customers and continue to succeed in delivering what they want and need, in the way they want and need it, you will have to make sure you are meeting their needs.