Know Your Customers

A famous (and telling) story: a number of years ago in the deep past when the fast food giants were having the great burger war and wanting to prove that size matters, both Burger King and McDonald’s were bragging about who had the biggest hamburger with a quarter pound of beef. Mc-D had the famous Quarter Pounder of course and BK had the famous Whopper. Well A&W wanted to get into the act. They were happy just being the root beer kings, they wanted to be the giant hamburger kings as well, so they came out with their Giant Burger which was one third of a pound. They screamed and hollered and advertised and bragged and well you know how these guys do it when they have something new. They spend enough money to fund a small country to get the message out.

And after doing all of that A&W  got nothing, nil, nada, zero in sales of this big new burger. Nobody cared it seemed and obviously nobody wanted it. So like all good fast food companies they decided to throw good money after bad and find out what in the name of the Papa Burger happened. Why didn’t anybody want the biggest burger in the land? Especially when A&W’s came with the best mugs of root beer in the land?

Okay here is what they discovered. Here was the real secret of their failure. Are you ready for this? Oh man you are not going to believe this. The general population, those burger eating, fast food bargain chasing fans out there thought that a third of a pound was less than a quarter of a pound! Honestly, they thought the Quarter Pounder at 4 ounces was bigger than the one-third pounder 5.3333 ounces of hamburger meat that A&W was offering. Think about that for just a minute and you’ll come to the conclusion that more than anything else you have to know what your customer wants and more importantly what your customer needs and most importantly what your customer actually knows. Fantastic!

Okay here’s another one from the archives. A few years ago at the height of the family van wars Chrysler was winning. They were first in modern family vans, or so they said. Volkswagen begged to differ but didn’t have a vote as far as Detroit was concerned. Chrysler had the Dodge Caravan, the Plymouth Voyager and the inimitable luxurious Town and Country. But Ford had nothing. They put their toe in the water with the Mercury Villager but that was smaller and boxy and not at all a real competitor to Chrysler.

So Ford decided that they were going to come up with a van to end all vans and they were going to get help designing it. They were going to go to the people who really used vans, the soccer moms. They traveled to every state in the land talking to focus groups, panels of soccer moms, asking them to help design a van especially for them. After hours and hours and erasable whiteboards full of ideas they finally came up with what they thought was the van to end all vans. A van designed by the people who would actually be using these vans. And the next year, out rolled this van of the future. The van that mom designed. Ladies and gentlemen, the van of the future, the Ford Windstar.

And in the next year the Ford Windstar was a miserable failure. Old Lee Iacocca beat them again. The new Chrysler vans of the year completely left the Ford Windstar in the dust! 

But Why? What happened? The Ford execs asked themselves. The reason that they lost and Chrysler won was so simple: Chrysler added sliding doors on both sides of the van. In their own surveys  they discovered that the most hated feature or lack thereof with their vans was that the passenger row only had one door. It was inconvenient, it was just plain dumb a classic case of left brain engineers not taking right brain human beings into consideration. So Chrysler changed the world by adding that second row second door so that the van had doors on both sides. The engineers had seen the four door sedans. They probably had even designed a few of their own. They knew that people liked exiting from both sides of the backseat in the car. So why did they think people were going to be happy with one door on the van’s back seat?

And Ford? Well of course they were furious. Not at themselves of course but at those soccer moms in the focus groups. So once again sending good money after bad they went back to those moms and asked,

“Why in the world didn’t you tell us you wanted that fourth door? Why didn’t you tell us that?”

And as always the answer was simple. ‘Because you never asked. We only answered the questions you asked and you never asked about that, we didn’t think it was an option.”

The lesson here is simple. Know your customers. In whatever you do, whatever you are building, whatever you are selling you have to know your customers and you have to know them better than they know themselves. It’s only common sense.