Understanding the Customers You Don't Have

May 1, 2001

Understanding the Customers You Don’t Have

Asking the right questions will reveal answers about your operation’s strengths and weaknesses

By Bill de Decker May/June 2001

It’s a truism that to do well in any business, you have to understand your customers. What is not so obvious is that to really do well, you have to have an equally good understanding of those who are not your customers and why.

Blind ambition
Consider the Sears department store. For years, they were the number one department store and they prided themselves on understanding their customer, serving them well and increasing sales. In fact, for most years in the 1970’s and 1980’s, sales did continue to increase slowly. Meanwhile, the explosive growth in the business was going to the likes of Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, etc., who were drawing customers (baby-boomers, generation-X’ers and others) that never even went to Sears except to perhaps buy Craftsman™ tools and Kenmore™ appliances. In short, what toppled Sears from its position of leadership was not that they didn’t take care of their customers, they did, but that they didn’t know there was a huge group out there that had no intention of ever using Sears, since they did not think Sears was relevant to their lives.
The same can happen to your business.

Truths and perceptions
The underlying reason for each of the danger signs listed below is the same — the service your organization provides is not relevant to the needs of the potential users. There are a number of possible reasons, including:
1. The service is perceived to be poor
2. The prices are perceived to be too high
3. The capabilities of your operation do not meet the needs of the potential users
4. Your operation does not have the technology needed by the potential users
5. The potential users do not know your service exists

Listen and learn
The only way to find out what is happening is to go talk to the people that are not using your services and listen to what they tell you. This can be very uncomfortable. They will probably tell you things you really don’t want to hear and your natural reaction is to defend your operation. However, if you keep an open mind, you’ll be amazed at what you learn. You’ll find that notwithstanding your best efforts, people didn’t know you exist. You’ll find people have exaggerated ideas of the cost of your service. You’ll find that your aircraft don’t have the capabilities and performance needed. You’ll find that people don’t think you are interested in their business. You’ll find that your competitor provides better service. You’ll find that you have a sales person, scheduler, maintenance technician or a pilot or whoever with a very poor attitude. You’ll find ... well, you get the idea.
The point is that you will find out what your potential users think or don’t think about your service and what it takes to get their business. The remarkable thing in all of this is that it is quite easy to get people to tell you how they perceive your service, even busy people. Particularly if they are former customers. But, you have to ask them, you have to listen and you cannot be defensive when you get an answer you don’t agree with. And, to make a lasting impression, you have to act on what you learn.

Time well spent
Another way is to spend time with your current customers and users to find out what they like about the service, what they don’t like and how they would like to see your organization improve. It’s important in this effort to ignore all the nice things said about your organization and instead focus on the negative or unexpected items. The reason for this is twofold: The first is your customers and users may not know that there is a better way, because they have never been exposed to it. The second is that the vast majority of people will not criticize your operation to your face. Instead, their responses will be brief and/or they will talk favorably about the competition. Again, by listening carefully for the negatives about your organization, the positives about the competition and the unexpected, you’ll find out a lot about where your organization is headed and what it will take to get and keep customers.

Know thy industry
A third way is to take the time and read trade publications, visit trade shows, study web sites and talk to your competitors. The idea is to find out what is new that your current and prospective customers may be interested in.
Sometimes it is really difficult to implement the needs and wants of your current and potential users to get or keep their business. However, at least you’ll know the obstacles you must overcome to avoid the Sears example and really thrive.

Recognizing the Danger Signs
The following scenarios prompt hard questions to determine any danger signs that indicate problems with your operation.

Scenario 1: Your service is used by only a few individuals, companies or organizations.
Question: What is happening to the others that need to travel or get maintenance for their aircraft?

Scenario 2: The number of people using your service is decreasing.
Question: Where are they getting their maintenance or transportation.

Scenario 3: The economy and the number of aircraft in the area are growing at a torrid pace, but your annual flight hours and/or maintenance volume are constant or increasing only slowly.
Question: Why is the general growth not affecting your operation?

Scenario 4: Your competitor across the field used to be the same size as you. Now three years later, they are twice as big as you are.
Question: What is fueling their growth?