Customers are Messy

charlene-li-170x1501.jpgI am at the SXSW Interactive conference listening to Forrester analyst Charlene Li (link has expired) talking about Social Revolutionaries. She just described how some companies act like they have the perfect customer as a porcelain figurine in the sales and marketing department. They want to sell to this “ideal person” and psychologically resist or ignore real customer data and experiences.

It reminds me of my first business 20 years ago when I owned an exercise club and traveled the world training instructors and setting up health and fitness programs. Most people wanted to teach the most fun classes, to have the most advanced equipment, to work out really hard – because those were the things that drew them into the business.

But there are relatively few people who share that level of interest in health or fitness ability.

To have more customers (and a stronger bottom line as well as bottom) meant to open your arms and embrace the less than perfect bodies. My default message was:

bq. Bring me your bad backs, your bulging bellies, your weak knees, your aching feet, your stressed out minds, and your defeated spirits. I will walk with you side by side and help you rebuild your energy, enjoy your body, and enliven your mind.

This meant I could not do some of my favorite moves: why should I impose that on my customers? It meant having unglamorous people in my club – but these people were far more loyal because I paid attention to them.

Way back then Reebok was ripping a new shoe line “aerobic shoes” and growing enormously, while the Nike board had the following discussion:

Board Member 1: Reebok is selling these aerobic shoes like mad. Should we get into that business?

Board Member 2: What the hell do we want to have anything to do with a bunch of fat women kicking their legs in the air?

Two years later Nike could no longer resist the urge to make money off these fat women and men. They realized there was room to support elite runners and Michael Jordan’s along with the masses of people wanting to be healthier and wear a functional shoe as well..

The fact that your customers are making mashup videos about you on YouTube, talking about you on their blogs, and using your products in strange ways, IS THE GOOD NEWS. There is magic and millions in those messes, if you are willing to set aside your own prejudices about who should be using your stuff.

UPDATE: Here is the slideshow from Charlene’s talk: