What is Your Customer Thinking?

These days, what is your customer thinking about? It used to be so much simpler. Now, Guy Kawasaki and Steve Jobs say that customers don’t really know what they want. They’re half right. Let’s find out why… and why not.

It used to be so much simpler. Your good customer heard about you from a friend. He checked the yellow pages for a phone number and address. Perhaps she phoned you first. Now (s)he’s in your store, and when (s)he walks out you’ve made the sale.

It’s much different now; there’s much more going on, before, during and after. I know, because I just bought a bicycle today’s way. By buying today’s way, I made it more interesting for me, and for the good folks at Bikenetics in Falls Church, Virginia. Here’s what happened.

After 40 plus years, I decide I need a bicycle. I’m looking for a local area exercise machine to burn off calories in one or two hour road sessions. Simple, right? Most modern, moderate cost bikes should fill the bill. I can go to one of the three bicycle stores within walking distance of my house and be out in an hour. Simple.

Dead wrong… it’s not simple. I have this sensible-sounding idea, without any real understanding of the modern bicycle. I’m dredging up of my college memories, when the Peugot UO8 was the bike of my daydreams, mentally outfitted with panniers and bags for touring. (Mind you, this therapeutic distraction ranked a close second to reading and rereading Colin Fletcher’s “The Complete Walker”.  Can you say road trip with heavy overtones of counterculture?)

CustomerThink Hint: Your customer walks into your store (or clicks into your site) with (a) a set of logical, practical needs and (b) a collection of memories and emotional aspiration that are probably at odds with (a).

Being a good netizen, I Google to query “exercise bicycles”, yielding my first frustration.  I’ve got the wrong keywords and I don’t know the right ones [expletive].

It’s time to bring out my secret shopping weapon; the image search. If I don’t know what I want, it’s a lot easier to scan hundreds of pictures in a few minutes than to read even a half dozen text descriptions. And it’s obvious that I don’t know what I want.

CustomerThink Hint: The next time your customer tells you (s)he “found you on the web”, ask whether they found your words or your pictures. Then ask which words or which pictures; your customer’s just told you something valuable about themselves and their motivation.

I look at dozens of pictures of bicycles, people biking, places to bike… but nothing showing some older guy pedaling off a few hundred calories. Hmmm.

However… I notice a picture of a simple road bike, “racy looking”, and a price of $400. (Wait a minute. That can’t be right.. must be a low-buck brand. Shame… it’s a cool-looking bike.)

Fixed-gear bikes (often called “fixies”) are bikes that have a single gear that is attached (“fixed”) directly to the hub of the bike’s rear wheel. There is no free-wheel mechanism, so the bike cannot coast. That means when the wheels are turning, so are the pedals, since the chain is driven by the sprocket mounted directly on the wheel.

In the next 20 minutes I learn that there’s a niche genre called fixed gear single speed bicycles. “Fixies” are used by closed-track racers (uncool, funny clothes, etc.) and urban messengers (very cool street rats, raffish clothes, fearless flyers, etc.).  I learn that the bikes don’t have the expensive multi speed components that tend to drive cost, and they’re not built on exotic frames. I learn that they were trendy in the 90’s, have fallen back into mythic velo lore, but are trending again with a number of niche startups. (great, it’s retro cool, just the thing for a sixytsomething…).

Then I see a picture of the iconic Bianchi Pista and I’m hooked. Now to find a place to see one for real.

CustomerThink Hint: The customer thinks they know what they want; it’s some amalgamem of the practical and the fantastical.

Back to Google, now searching on a combination of the product name (Bianchi bicycle) and location (northern Virginia). Up pop several local bike stores… but one has a 5 star yelp rating.

Five minutes later I’m headed for Bikenetics, about 15 minutes up the road.

CustomerThink Hint: You might learn a lot simply by asking your next customer “why us?” For Bikenetics, it’s a carefully nurtured obsession with customer service.

What am I thinking about? A lot, apparently. There’s a left brain full of (possibly) useful facts and a right brain full of certainly emotive pictures. There’s an overlay expectations, courtesy of social media. But it’s not filtered and organized by a good night’s sleep.

It needs a good person to take me from what I think I might want to what will actually surprise and delight me. Sure enough, there’s one of those at Bikenetics. Brian at Bikenetics has a fixie (all the store staff seem to own multiple bikes) and shares some stories about learning to ride one. Between Brian’s stories and my questions, the truth for me emerges.

In the next 20 minutes, I learn that:

  • A single speed bicycle makes sense for my needs, but a fixed gear bike is a unique animal that some choose not to tame.
  • Many rear hubs are switchable from single speed fixed gear to single speed freewheeling… you don’t have to make the choice when you buy the bike
  • Bianchi repurposed their Pista race frame set as a “fixie”… not the best match of a track-focused frame geometry to the world of the street.
  • Half the fun of buying a fixie is customizing it for me.

CustomerThink Hint: There’s an old saw about “touching the customer light”. The customer has the hard job of reconciling dreams with reality. Your job is to make the journey gentle and easy.

Two hours later I walk out of the Bikenetics. They’re ordering my new fixed gear bike, with some extra pieces just for me.

Bonus Note

Caring, informed store staff can double store sales per square foot. Their job has changed. The customer already knows what’s in your stock, has already read more than your in store description,and has already self-primed with a (possibly completely off base) image of themselves enjoying your product. Your store staff has to tease out those thoughts, keep the enchantment, add back a dose of secrecy knowledge and and some everyday dollars and sense, and close the sale… that’s a lot.

“Profit in business comes from repeat customers, customers that boast about your product or service, and that bring friends with them.’

W. Edwards Deming

Would your best store staff – those who figure out what your customer is thinking – actually be your profit engines?



One Comment

  1. Chris Chadbourne says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Every day, every customer.

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