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Know Thy Customer

Go back to high school



We all say we love to study our customers. We say this with a certain grand detachment, as if we were regarding customers from afar on a cloudy day. And indeed we are, because we do not really know them.

If you dare: Don't study your customers; experience them. If you don't get involved, you're just reading secondhand reports and research. It's after the fact. It's statisticized. Digested. Collated. Squeezed dry.

Focus groups are overrated, too. They're also once removed from reality. They take place in dull, sanitary rooms where nice people are paid to deliver opinions while the bosses listen in from behind one-way glass.

Last year in Dallas, a local designer refused to attend a retailers'convention, saying: “I never mix with customers. They bring me down.” In this astonishingly stupid remark, she delivered a perfect example of what's wrong with the fashion industry. It isolates itself from customers. But in every industry, the farther you are from your customers, the less you know, the later you are, the deader your material. And worst of all, you're missing out on the rare joy of actual-versus-virtual experience.

Sam Walton always experienced customers first-hand (and associates too, including executives). He never made pre-announced visits to a store; he just showed up, like any customer. In fact, like every customer. Meanwhile, other ceo's were sitting in a monument reading a lot of dated material.


Sears got rid of some of its focus groups (they provide good secondhand information) and brought in actual customers to do the buying. Greg Sandfort took nine-year-old Dolly Morgan (selected after a nationwide search of more than 3000 “tweens” ages 9-12) to the New York Market and gave her $5.5 million to spend (although I am sure he never left the room where this was taking place). This is direct customer connection: no focus group, no edited research, no reports, no second-, third- and fourth-hand retrospect — just first-hand, hand-in-hand with the customer experience.

So get to know your customers. Know them. It isn't easy. They suspect we harbor ulterior motives every time we pump 'em for information. And they're right. We're there to “pick their brains” and make money at it. This is not an appetizing version of what we do.

Or, have your high school spend a week with you. Kravco Company, a shopping center developer, is partnering with a group called SHINE (Seeking Harmony in Neighborhoods Everyday). (See, and you'll be excited, too.) These groups meet for talk-outs in Kravco malls. SHINE provides the mediators (e.g., Snake and other rappers). Their slogan: “Peace Talks. Violence Walks. Use your voice, impact your world.” Their rule: “We declare…we will resolve conflicts peacefully. Judge others solely by their words and actions. Treat others with the same respect that we wish to receive. Be part of the solution and encourage others to do the same.”

Same thing: customers talking to each other (and to the merchants), creating trust, getting closer to customers. There is goodness in it. Less risk than asking an encounter group, if you ask me. Less remote than the dim, sad sight of grown-ups trying to talk to high-school kids who don't seem to want to talk to them.

Dive in! Live! Go back to high school! Create trust. It is the beginning of every fine relationship, including selling goods to people.

Spend a week inside a high school if you want to really experience your next, best customers. Don't observe. Work there. You'll go through more emotions — and learn more — and resolve more — after the thrill of direct involvement, than you will in a month of seminars in Ballroom A at a Marriott.


Spend a week inside a high school. Find a project. Get inside. Attend classes. Join a committee.

Then start the first task: Get someone to trust you. If you wish to genuinely bind your customers to you, you must earn their trust, and then they'll hand you the truth you need to act on. This will not happen quickly. It may not happen at all. But until it does, you will not be engaged with the people who will be your next customers.

Read this copy from full-page ads running nationally for (“where it's at for the Internet Generation”). A genuine teenager is looking out at you, the reader:


So, Dear Reader, can you relate? That is the question.

If not, stay home. Read all about it.


So, how do you relate?

First, don't assume you do relate. Assume you do not, and that you have to prove it.

Then, dive in. I sat with a group of tired high-school students while we adults tried to engage them in group discussion. We hoped to discuss drugs, apathy, disconnection and solutions. But for one hard hour the talk went nowhere.

And then it happened. The mayor of our town spoke out, telling us all that he himself was a recovering alcoholic, now 18 years sober. At that point, electricity crackled in the room, the kids woke up and started to participate. It had been demonstrated that everyone in the room was human, and that connections could indeed be made, as similarities had been exposed. The conversation started to move. The mayor had answered the critical question: “Can you relate?”

It is at this point that you will find yourself having the liveliest conversations of the year. You will realize you are engaged with the present instead of reading about it. This is not a bloodless printout. (I remember walking past the podium on which rested a speech about to be delivered by the ceo of a company with 29,000 employees. Across the top was written, “13th Revision.” Was there any life left in that speech by now? Would teenage kids — or other intelligent forms of life — believe the speaker was “living for today…can you relate?” Incidentally, the speech he was about to give was about trying to understand the teenage market, which has deserted his stores.)

Time magazine published an alarming fact that I can't get out of my mind:

25,000 — Number of words in the vocabulary of average 14-year-old in the US in 1950.
10,000 — Number of words in the vocabulary of average 14-year-old in the US in 1999.

These “customers” of ours need intensive care, and they resist it. The state of their manners, education, interest, resourcefulness, self-reliance, human interaction, spirit and enthusiasm is alarming. It is also the future. These young people badly need inspiration. These customers should be our best and biggest project.

Go spend a week in a high school. You will find yourself dropping irrelevant parts of your own past, you will be planning for the future by helping to create it, and, best of all, when you relate, you will be living for today, as it is created.

It'll blow you away.


And you must.

These are your next customers.



MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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