To succeed in business, my suggestion is, “know your customer and know yourself.” Actually, that is my take on a saying attributed to the ancient Chinese General Sun Tzu who wrote the Art of War. An interesting and refreshing approach to “wining” in battle, his sage advice is actually, “Know thy enemy, know thyself.” Fortunately he is long dead because from the looks of things he could have kicked my a$$ and probably would not appreciate my using his saying for commercial purposes.
Knowing your customer is something that only a few really observant businesses really take the time to do. Sure, you hear all the time about market research, demographic studies, spend analysis, etc… but if you asked most executives questions about their customers, they usually can only paint a picture in the broadest of strokes. Do you know who really studies the customer? I know who: The shop clerk at the cash register, the front desk agent at the check in desk, and the waiter at the restaurant. Ask them about their customers and they will say, “Mr. Jones is very angry lately because his wife left him…Mary only buys the best now that she got a promotion…Mrs. Stevens buys designer brands and has us cut off the price tags so her husband won’t know…” The line staff knows all the gossipy details and minutia about their customers. The problem is that most companies only go through the motions of pretending to listen to their team members.
In my current job I must listen to the employees. Hopefully some of the insight I share with you here will be of use in your own business.
On Public Speaking:
I travel the globe training people sell and serve their guests better. Make no mistake, while they are observing and learning from me, I am observing and learning from them too. Public speakers like me become expert at reading an audience. The most mentally dangerous job in the world is being a comedian. They face a room full of people (often drunk – alcohol is a depressive) who sit there challenging them to make them laugh. Comedians walk on stage and feel the vibrations of a room even before anyone says anything. They always ask the same question, “Hello New York! How’s everybody doing tonight?” They do not really care about the answer, but the response they get back tells them in that split second what type of night they will be having. I do the same. Whether it is a room of 10 or 600 people, with practice I can now observe the energy of a crowd and know if they will laugh easily, hate my ideas, if they have to be there, or if they want to be there. I don’t take their opinions about me personally before I speak. Good or bad, it is simply a barometer. When I face a tough crowd, it doesn’t rattle me; it just means that I need to adjust my approach.
About now you might be thinking, “I don’t speak to groups of people so why should I care about this?” Ah but you do! I think it is ironic that so many people say that they fear public speaking. I often answer them back with, “Really? Do you know that you just publicly told me this?” We are all public speakers, but it is often to an audience of one.
So back to my original statement of know your customer, know yourself.
Knowing your customer means:
You listen to what they say and what they don’t say. Sometimes silence, ticks of the tongue, or a well placed “hummm” tells you more about how an interaction is going than words ever could.
You see “them” as individuals. Looking at clothing, body posture, eye contact, walks, and gestures tells you much more than whether or not a person has money. (Something which can be deceptive.) Looking at the visual clues a customer gives helps you to know someone on a much more personal level. You can see if they have confidence, too much pride, care about their appearance, or are insecure all based on the “tells” a person offers you. This technique is used by gamblers, con-artists, politicians, and smart business people.
You understand their culture. Here is the most important yet overlooked factor of all. I mentioned earlier that based on audience reaction I must adjust my approach. I also must adjust my approach based on the culture or country I am speaking to. If I speak to an audience in a Socialist country the same way I speak to New Yorkers about selling to luxury clients, it will be a disaster. For both groups, I will still get my points across and by the end of the day. Both groups will know the same material, but hopefully they will be able to relate to what I have said and view me in a non-threatening and non-hostile manner. Easier said than done.
There are certain stereotypes of guests that no matter where I go in the world, I can say to a group of people, “What do you think of customers from ‘X’ country?” Everyone in the room will roll their eyes and grown. Often someone says, “I love their money but when I see them in my shop my stomach tightens and I know there will likely be a problem.” Stereotype is a word people are often afraid to say out loud. To me it is a tool to use with caution and care, remembering there are exceptions to every rule. As I see more and more of the world two truths keep coming back to me:
People in the world are mostly good-hearted, kind, interesting, and the same at their core.
You can often tell a lot about a person if you know where they are from and happen to know a bit of that area’s history.
We are all a product of our environment for better or worse. Some of us choose to fight against our heritage, some choose to be proud and represent our heritage, but ALL of us are shaped by our heritage.
So knowing your customer is complex business. Knowing yourself should be easy right? Nope.
Knowing yourself means:
You are in control of what you say and don’t say. A self-aware person watches the tone of their voice and can hold their tongue when needed. Teenagers usually have not yet learned how to do this. If you don’t believe me, you can borrow my teenager for an afternoon. (Please.) Even adults often listen to a recording of their interaction with a customer and tell me, “I had no idea I sounded like that.” Really.
You present yourself they way you want to be perceived. Brush your hair and teeth if you want people to think your restaurant is clean. Seems obvious right? Huh, why do I see so many examples to the contrary? Probably because the person is busy working and forgot that they are a walking advertisement of themselves. I have had waiters with dirty fingernails recommend items that as an ex-waiter I know required their touching my food. -No thanks. How about the female spa worker who was balding and recommended a hair product to me? -Do you think I wanted to buy what she was selling?
You represent the culture of your environment/specialty/company. If you work for a company that you love and believe in, be the expert in that company. Know everything there is to know. Nothing is more irritating to me than when I travel 5,000 miles, ask about the local restaurant and hear, “Well, that is on the other side of town. It is really far so I have never been there.” Really? Even if you haven’t been there, why not ask someone who has? That would require caring. It also requires an intellectual curiosity that sadly most people lack. As stated in one of my favorite old movies, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” True words Auntie Mame…true words. I work in a luxury industry. I have seen rich people who are absolutely miserable, waited on by some of the happiest and smartest people I know. The richness of a life is not dependant on money.
Money pays the bills but experience is the currency I prefer to trade in. Keep discovering and never ever stop wanting to learn!