What are you selling?

Took advantage of the beautiful weather this weekend and wandered uptown for a coffee, passing an old favorite shop.

A decade ago it was one of my must stop destinations before Mother’s Day or an upcoming birthday. The owner had an eye for the affordable unusual.

Through the window the shop looked familiar, still an eclectic mix. But off. Almost interesting, but not quite. Hard to explain. Leave it to say, I had no interest in going in. Haven’t been interested for quite a while.

I was no longer a customer. Why?

The new owners have done a fine job of maintaining the mix. But maintaining is the key word here. I never went into the shop because I expected to find ‘country’ or ‘humor’ or ‘handmade.’ I went into the shop to be entertained and to pass that entertainment on to my friends. While the old owner’s taste was always familiar, things changed in ways beyond simple design changes or style.

The new owner didn’t know what the old owner had been selling me.

Do you know what your customers are actually buying from you? Answering the question can be difficult in part because often your customers have no idea what the real reasons are for making their purchasing decisions. The words they use to justify a purchase sometimes match the motivation, but just as often asking can force them to string together words that try to make logical sense of an emotional step. (One of many reasons focus groups are such treacherous waters for a decision maker to swim in.) If you blindly follow what your customers tell you, then you will never take your business anywhere new. And you customers will find themselves someplace else. Not always knowing exactly why.

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14 Responses to What are you selling?

  1. J.D. Meier says:

    Beautiful point … the way forward is shifting from supply-driven to demand-driven and really, really knowing what the demand is (problems, needs, wants) … and that’s where BI, customer touch, and the prosumer model reigns the day.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..Lessons Learned from Steve Pavlina =-.

  2. Brad Shorr says:

    Fred, Is it that customers don’t know why they buy, or is it that they don’t know how to articulate it? If sellers ask the right questions, I think they can zero in on buying motivations to a very great extent.

  3. Cynthia says:

    I have found that customers can rarely tell you what they want or why they want it. It is through getting to know them and listening as they tell you about their lives where things start to make more sense. Great customer service and interaction with your customers will be more important in the future as business becomes more competitive, but it is still not the entire answer.

    The creative spark that ignites desire is still an huge part of the picture, but is one of the most difficult things for business owners to master because it is something that cannot be read in a book or be taught in school, it is something that must be felt and cultivated by working with customers.

    Ultimately, customers are seeking an experience rather than a thing, so filling their needs requires more than just great products and a well designed store. It requires someone who can reliably predict the experiences the customer is craving.
    .-= Cynthia´s last blog ..Review: Illustrating the Cover of an Ecosystem Large Sketchbook. =-.

  4. Heidi Thorne says:

    This happens so often when a company is bought by another! I’ve seen it many times in the industries I serve where new owners end up obliterating everything that was special about the old company.

    Another factor is also that we, as consumers, change over time. There is the possibility that your tastes have changed and everything looks off because you are a different person than before.

    Thanks for a great blog post!
    .-= Heidi Thorne´s last blog ..Green Events – Ideas from Eventprofs Earth Day Tweetchat =-.

  5. Davina says:

    It just goes to show that it’s not always about the money. I’ve sometimes heard myself think to myself “I can’t afford that.” And then the next day I find myself out spending more than that amount of money on something else.
    .-= Davina´s last blog ..9 Animal Totem Cards for Your Muse =-.

  6. Hi Brad, A bit of both actually. I always enjoy watching a talented questioner moving a prospect closer to a sale. They uncover barriers, identify leverage points, help the customer see why they desperately want what is being sold. Very powerful information. Where this becomes complicated for those of us in product development is when we start slicing and dicing why did the sale occur. The final decision between two competing products can come down to how well spoken the sales clerk was that day, how quickly the website responded, something a competitor did wrong, etc. In the case of the retailer above, I would have focused on the products I bought that day – what was entertaining about them. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to say I liked everything in the store better because of the effect of the overall mix. It is up to the retailer to understand how that works. A bit of the art mixed in with the science of running a store.

    Someone who is truly in tune with their product and customers does know what they are selling and can imagine how change or lack of change might impact their results. The key here I think is that the individual needs to be deeply involved. Many aspects of running a business get between decision makers and their customers over time, including success.

  7. Hi Cynthia, I should have read your comment before replying to Brad. Right on. I would only add – as soon as you think you understand your customers get ready for them to throw you a curve. The need for unique experiences is ever evolving. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Hi Heidi, I know I’ve changed, but I don’t think that is the key problem. I miss the old store. Maybe a good way to express it is that the store feels like a pale copy of itself. In the past, the mix included hard to find individual pieces (crafted) as well as mass produced. By balancing the two it added a spark to even some of the mass items that could be found anywhere. As in many stores that are a bit trend setting, the products that lead the way quickly get knocked off by importers and the buyer must look for the next round of uniqueness. I think the new owners don’t realize that when they replace a hand crafted object with a mass produced object – even if they are identical, something important changes.

  9. Hi Davina, One of the most common problems in focus groups is that when you ask a participant to choose between two items they will tend to make the “logical” choice. Something that is healthy over something more deseartish for instance. In the real world the decision and reasons for the decision can go the opposite way. Context is everything.

  10. Andrew says:


    As Heidi says, this is one of the challenges confronting new owners taking over any business – especially ones like coffee shops where people’s preferences often turn on small nuances.

    Existing staff could play a big part in overcoming this given that maintaining some of the old familiar faces makes any ‘changes’ seem less daunting to existing customers. It is also important to exercise a degree of caution with regard to any changes made, so as to keep what is ‘good’ about the old way and evolve in a way which builds on these strengths (unless of course, the new owner wishes to take it in a totally new direction).

    But whilst I do not question the value of trying to understand the intricacies with regard to customer purchasing behavior, there are certain ‘intricacies’ which will never you do any harm regardless of who your customers are. You can’t go far wrong with a nice, big smile. Nor can you go wrong with observing basic forms of courtesy, making prompt, friendly service a motto. Making eye contact always helps win trust (although not always appropriate when dealing with some Asian cultures).

    Basically, your attitude, as well as that of your staff, should say “We like you, we are glad you came. We care about your needs and we truly want to serve you well. We want you to leave feeling better than how you felt when you came in.”

    Few customers have nuances against being treated with this kind of basic respect.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..My take on Goldman =-.

  11. Great points Andrew.

  12. Pingback: How experts mislead themselves and mislead us | Managing Leadership | Managing Leadership

  13. Kay Plantes says:

    Fred, I love your poignant insight into the soul of a store. It’s helpful to find tools that get customers to reveal their preferences, without having to state them e.g., experiment with different kinds of merchandise (with small investment levels) and see what works well and does not; give customers either-or visual choices as part of your market research. What counts is a conscious effort to establish and then test hypotheses.

    A leader I respect once said, “Your business model is merely your current theory of how you can make money. Recognize that it’s a theory, and be vigilant about testing it regularly.”
    .-= Kay Plantes´s last blog ..Business Model Innovation Earns 2009 Inc 500 Spot =-.

  14. Hi Kay, Love the quote. I like looking at this type of approach as ‘iterative innovation.’ Try it, check it, adjust, try again….

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