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DATA DETECTIVES

Listen to Your Customers--not Your Gut--and Prosper

Data is better than anyone's intuition. (Even yours.)
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To help explain why customers are more than willing to make you rich, if you let them, let me tell you a quick true story that makes me look like a total idiot.

Carl Sewell, one of the nation's biggest car dealers, and I were just about done writing a book about customer service as a business strategy--a radical idea back in the late 1980s--when Carl asked what he thought was the world's most basic question: "When do we focus group it?"

Book publishers don't like to run focus groups for many of the same reasons that magazine editors don't. Both groups hate to spend money. (Calling them "cheap" is churlish. But accurate. Sorry boss.) But more importantly they think they know what their readers want, and so they think focus groups are redundant.

"But how will we ever know for sure what people want if we don't ask them?" Carl responded logically.

Since our publisher wasn't willing to do it, Carl decided to fund the focus group himself.

He hired consumer-research firm Yankelovich, told them to give the first 100 pages of our manuscript to a representative sample of our potential audience and have those folks tell us what they thought.

The Results

A couple of weeks later, 12 people--eight men, four women--sat around a conference table with a moderator, while Carl, our editor, and I looked on from the other side of a two-way mirror. (The participants were told we were there. It did not inhibit them one whit, as you will see.)

The group began by discussing my proposed title. I knew we had to call it the book "The $332,000 Customer." (The number is what average customers were then spending with Sewell over their lifetimes.) My title, I said humbly, was brilliant, intriguing, thought-provoking, and would make the book jump off the shelves. (I cannot begin to tell you how clever I thought I was with that title.)

Within seconds, it was clear that the group was split about how smart I was. Nine out of the 12 people thought it was absolutely the worst title they had ever heard. The other three said they had heard worse.

It went downhill from there. They loved our central argument, but couldn't we reorganize things somehow to make information easier to use? They liked the idea of checklists at the end of the chapter, but couldn't we tell them what they should do about what they just read, and why did the book need to be so wordy? And so it went.

After a couple of days of licking our wounds, we took the comments to heart.

We wrote a new title. What kept resonating was that the focus group thought--correctly--that the entire book was about capturing and then keeping a customer forever. Since the fundamental idea was so important to them, we ended up using it twice: "Customers for Life: Turning That One-Time Buyer Into a Lifetime Customer."

To make the book easier to digest, we chopped long chapters into two or three shorter ones, and we made the book completely modular so you could skip the stuff that wasn't relevant to you.

And since it was clear that people were far more interested in "news you can use" than a clever turn of phrase, whenever there was a choice during the rewrite, sounding like USA Today trumped The New Yorker every time.

Know What You Don't Know

Since the book is a key reason my kids were able to go to the colleges of their choice, the moral seems clear to me: Get as much input from your customers as you can and act on it. Your personal ego be damned.

We all would like to think we know exactly what the customer wants. And we may in fact, be pretty darn close to understanding their needs.  But Carl was right. If you really want to know what customers want, you have to ask them.

Data, as Scott Cook of Intuit, is fond of saying, is better than anyone's intuition.

You get the data by asking customers what they want.  (They will be more than happy to tell you.)

If you do, you--and your customers--will end up happy.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: May 14, 2014

PAUL B. BROWN | Columnist

Best-selling author (and Inc. magazine columnist) Paul B. Brown's latest book, Own Your Future, has just been published. Brown's blog appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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