How to Understand Your Customer

Understanding Customers (part 3)

This is the third in a series of three posts addressing how understanding customers is crucial to selling software. In the first post we covered why understanding customers is essential, in the second post we looked at a long list of what information we need to understand customers. And in this final post, it time for you to find out how to go about this.

In this post we’ll cover:

How to Understand Your Customer


You already have access to the vast majority of this information. It’s either within your company or in the public domain. Your customers are telling you and telling the world but most software companies don’t spend enough time listening.

Search the web. Find out what people are saying about your software in forums, in blogs, on twitter, in user group meetings, at events. Find out what are the most popular keyword searches for your sector.

Then work back and try to find how those people first expressed their problems, what the first symptoms were. How did they describe their pain, how did they describe themselves and where did they look for solutions.

The richest information you already have is probably internal but unstructured information such as:

  • Emails sent to your company by prospects and customers
  • Search terms entered on your web site
  • Questions asked to your sales and support teams

Look for:

  • What information people are searching for
  • How they express what they want
  • What process they use for evaluation
  • How long they take to decide
  • What influences them
  • What objections did people raise and what were the most effective ways of handling or heading off those objections

Group similar people into personas, look for similar behaviours, and indicators that can be used to assign their persona and predict behaviour.

Ask and listen

Ask your customers and concentrate on really listening to them. Ideally you will want to go and see them to understand:

  • How they use your software and why?
  • What started them looking?
  • How did they research options and come to a decision?
  • What seemed to be important when they started looking?
  • Why did they choose your software and what were the main alternatives?
  • What benefits are they getting and how does that compare to expectations?
  • What regrets do they have, what frustrates them most?
  • How do they feel now and what are they happiest about?
  • What’s next, what do they expect from you, what are they hoping for?
  • Would they consider switching to a competitor and what would make them switch?

Almost every customer you visit will teach you something new. It is much harder to understand a customer if they are a number on a report or just an email address. Walk for a mile in your customer’s boots if you can – understand what their job is, the challenges, the rewards, how it feels.

Peter Merholz recommends:

When you go to your customers and encourage them to talk to you, you should speak only to break the ice and get them comfortable, and then to ask questions. The rest of the time, stay quiet and listen. … Record everything you can. Take notes and videotape the entire session. Photograph anything of interest (think CSI). Most people you work with can’t go be with customers, so these recordings are crucial in bringing what you’ve seen to them.

Seeing your customers in-person will give you the richest qualitative insight, while automated surveys (via email, polls on web sites, voting via social media) will give you broader reach as you scale. You could even try asking your prospects to self-identify themselves e.g. different pages on your web site for different personas.

Ask all the people. Ask:

  • The people who buy
  • The people who use your software
  • The people who benefit from it, if you can

And ask the real experts – your partners. In most cases, the top experts in your software will be the people who implement it for multiple customers. Not only will they be familiar with multiple use cases, but they will probably be familiar with your competition and the sales process.

Encourage complaints

This is going to be uncomfortable and the discomfort is probably one of the main reasons marketing professionals don’t spend enough time talking to customers. If you are regularly finding out what irritates your customers most, you can:

  • Address the problem in the short-term whether it’s a product defect, poor service experience, misunderstanding or lack of education for the customer
  • Stop this customer leaving and telling others of their negative experience
  • Prevent this problem being encountered by prospects and by the rest of your customers
  • Prevent your competitors using this problem as ammunition against you
  • Design in a longer-term solution so this problem does not arise
  • Turn it into a benefit

Just think—if you find out about all your customers’ complaints and your competitors don’t—you will have a major advantage.

And don’t just ask your customers, implement a process so that you routinely ask

  • People who didn’t buy your software
  • People who decided to leave
  • Your competitors’ customers
Further reading

Join the Discussion

  • Do you agree that understanding customers is the #1 priority for selling software in the long term?
  • What do you do to understand your customers?
  • Share your tips, ideas, examples of best and worst practice.
  • What other topics would you like to see covered here?

Please add a comment below or contact Giles @ Smart

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