Who powers your business? It’s easy to imagine that it’s powered by you: your passion, your ambition, your expertise. But a more sustainable power source for your business is the person who makes it work: your customer.

While your business is an act of self-expression and guided by your unique vision, it exists in partnership with your Most Valued Customers.

When your business draws energy from those partners, it doesn’t require your constant support as owner. You can empower your team to draw inspiration from your customers. You can create tools that allow your customers to help themselves. The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, it’s rare that you’ll see good advice on understanding who those people really are. Most teaching about your right customers is:

  • Business-Centric – Your customers really do have lives outside of waiting for your company’s next offer.
  • Lack Synthesis – What are you going to do with the fact that your customers read Sunset Magazine, shop at REI, and buy a lot of Colombia clothing?
  • Don’t Provide for Deep Empathy – The way your customers think and feel, along with the mindset and internal scripts that guide them, is the real key to effective communication.

Now that I’ve told you what’s missing from the usual advice around finding your “ideal customer,” let’s reconstruct some fresh ideas about who these people are and how they can power your business.

First, as far as I’m concerned, you and your customer play equal parts in attracting each other. Just like you can’t stalk the subject of your more carnal desire to the point of loving you, you can’t just chase after customers if they’re not interested in what you’re offering.

You have to respect that there are customers who might meet the profile of the customer you have in mind as ideal but they may not be interested in or ready for what your business has to offer. Your job is to not only create a profile an understanding that guides you to the best people but one that guides people who are ready and willing to your business.

That may mean you need to alter who you think you’re meant to serve. It may mean the people you’ve been chasing are all wrong for you. Or it may mean that you need to shift your mindset away from “stalking and converting” to “romancing and wooing.”

Next, the work you do around better understanding your customers needs to be Customer-Centric, not Business-Centric. A typical business-centric survey question is, “What features would you like to see the next time we update this product?” or “What topics would you like us to cover on the blog?” Your business is top of mind for you so it’s understandable that it’s the easiest way to approach understanding your customers.

However, your customers will give you much more useful information if you imagine your business doesn’t exist. Weird, I know. This approach works whether you’re sourcing information directly from your customers or whether you’re sourcing the information from your own brain. Focus on your customers needs, questions, and desires. Think about their problems in terms of stumbling blocks or barriers. Consider the jobs (social, functional, and emotional) they need to get done on a daily basis.

Try questions like this:

  • What frustrates you most about trying to…?”
  • What skills do you believe would improve your ability to…?”
  • How do you normally spend your weekends? Why?”
  • If you could wave your magic wand and change 1 thing about…, what would it be?

Try to maintain as little bias and as much genuine curiosity as possible. There’s a time for sourcing your expertise, but it’s not now. Don’t worry about your relationship to the potential customer (trust me, they’re not), worry about your customer’s relationship to themselves, their time, their energy, their families, and their communities.

Once you’ve gathered that kind of unbiased information and you’ve examined your customers’ whole lives, it’s time to synthesize.

I have two commandments for this step. First, ask “Why?” And second, trust yourself.

The key to synthesizing the customer-centric information you gather is to always be looking for the motivation, values, or beliefs that swim underneath it. That’s what makes up the mindset–or worldview–that causes your customer to act the way she does, including acting to purchase something or share it with her friends on Facebook.

Each time you ask “Why?” and dig a little deeper, you reach more useful information. While knowing that your customers read Sunset magazine, shop at REI, and wear Columbia could help you place an ad or style your photos, asking “Why?” can lead you to more insightful information. You’ll learn that they appreciate an adventurous yet laid back lifestyle, value the environment, and have an appreciation for passion & expertise.

As I said, the trick here is to trust yourself. You don’t need to ask your customers directly why they like what they like or do what they do, though that can be helpful (it can also be unhelpful). Instead, ask yourself why your customers like what they like or do what they do. And trust that the answers you provide are true.

The thing is, we all gather information more information about people than we realize. We are constantly making inferences from what people say or do. We are receiving unspoken cues all the time. We’re social creatures and it’s how we survive social situations without getting punched in the face.

Unfortunately, most people turn that off when they think about their customers. They go cold and forget to check in with their social brain to uncover the information that is hiding just below the surface. But, as soon as you allow yourself to ask “Why?” and then trust the information you receive from the resources of your psyche, that information will come flooding to the surface.

My final point is on creating deep empathy for your customers. Dan Pink calls empathy, “a stunning act of imaginative derring-do.” It’s as close as I’ll ever get to reading someone’s mind, though that’s a comment I often receive.

Deep empathy isn’t just what you know about your customer. It’s literally being able to step inside his or her life from afar and use the same thought patterns & emotions that guide her actions. It’s anticipating what will resonate with her on the deepest levels.

Creating deep empathy for your customers means that you have access to their inner most feelings and mindsets. When you have that access, you can create the frameworks that allow you to be of greatest service. You can stop treating (or marketing to) surface level needs and start addressing their core desires. You can help them move past the barriers that stand between them and what you offer (i.e. buy).

Again, the action you need to take here is to unlock your social brain. Instead of focusing on concrete details, allow yourself to probe the feelings of your customer. Given all what you know about her experiences, how would you feel if you were her? What true desires would you hide from the world if you were her?

How do the answers to those questions change how you approach your brand, your marketing, your sales process, and your product development?

Remember, the goal with creating a deep understanding of your customers is not to convert people who are uninterested in what you do. The goal is to attract the people who are already searching for what you offer and guide them gently and sincerely to what they seek.

If everything your business does–from a lowly tweet to a signature product to a rebranding campaign–is powered by a deep understanding of your customers, it becomes easy for your customers to buy and for your business to serve them. That ease is the key to sustainable, enjoyable growth. And it’s powerful.

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