You Are Not Your Customer

If there’s one single lesson I could impart to all the folks who come to me for online, website, and business advice, it’s this:

You are not your customer.

They don’t think like you do. They don’t want what you want. They don’t believe what you believe. Their values are not your values. They don’t behave the way you do.

And they certainly don’t behave the way you want them to.

I’ve been doing this online thing for a while now, and I want to share with you the most common ways in which you’re probably wrong about what you think people are willing to do on your website. Then let’s list some specific approaches you can take to deal with it.

Six ways you’re wrong about your customers

I don’t care what you think you know about your audience; when it comes to the internet, you’re almost certainly wrong.

It took me forever to learn this for myself. Seriously.

As a result, I would make decisions based on what I wanted, or what I thought was good, rather than better understanding what they wanted and providing that instead. The results were underwhelming.

Even if it hurts deeply, to have a chance succeeding online you must put your ego and preconceptions aside and cater to what your market really wants. Not because it’s what you would want in their shoes, but because it’s what they really, truly, actually want.

Figuring out what they really, truly, want is the secret sauce we all struggle with.

If you start with “I would want…”, or even “I want…”, it’s no longer about your customer or your audience. You’ve made it all about you, not them.

You’ll build yourself a very nice online presence that no one will care about. In technical terms, we call this a failure, or, as is so often the case online, bankruptcy.

One of the best ways to avoid the most common website mistakes is to understand what your visitors don’t want.

1) People don’t want to read your stuff

They just don’t. As long, wonderful, insightful, and helpful as it might be, people don’t want to read it.

You don’t want to read this. You have better things to do with your time. I’m surprised you’re still here.

The biggest takeaway is that if you write just for yourself (i.e. you write what you want), no one will read it.

Now, it’s OK to write for yourself. I do it myself all the time. It’s a great way to organize thoughts, and can be exceptionally cathartic. Just don’t fool yourself: it’s for you, not your audience. They won’t care, and they certainly won’t read it.

Instead, write about what’s important to your audience. Not what you think is important, but what you know is actually, truly, important to them. Write concisely, get your point across, and move on.

2) People don’t scroll

They just don’t.

Newspapers have known this for hundreds of years: the vast majority of people look at the top half of the front page and move on.

This exact same behavior has been proven to exist online. People land on a page, see what’s there, and leave without scrolling at all. It doesn’t matter that the answer they were seeking exists just a couple of pages down, they won’t find it. They’ll have left.

Lengthy articles, like this one, go largely ignored because all the meat is “below the fold”. Like I said, I’m surprised you’re still here.

Takeaway: put the critical stuff up top and be concise and engaging.

3) People don’t click

“Click here” is a waste.

If you’ve managed to get someone to a page on your site, chances are it’ll be the only page they look at, no matter how much you promise is just a click away.

It’s so common there’s an industry term for it: bounce rate. That’s the percentage of people that come to a page on your site and leave your site completely without bothering to look at another. Common bounce rates are in the 90% range.

Nine out of ten people look at exactly one page — more correctly, part of one page — and leave.

Takeaway: give people what they’re looking for on that page. Don’t make them hunt, and don’t try to force feed them things they don’t want or care about.

4) People don’t read

If they do scroll down, they’re not reading, they’re skimming.

I can’t tell you the number of times people make comments on my articles that (I feel) are clearly addressed in the article they’re commenting on. Either they didn’t read it — skimming past it to get to the comment box — or I wasn’t as clear as I thought.

Takeaway: write for skimmers. Use bullet points, lists, and pictures. (There are studies that show many people ignore articles completely, and just read captions underneath pictures.)

5) Most people will use their phone

Ask Leo! is a website mostly about PCs and Windows. Currently, one-third of my visitors visit via their mobile device — technology the site doesn’t cover. On a site I recently worked on in the pet space, over half of its visitors read it on a mobile phone (not a tablet, a phone).

The most obvious implication is that your web presence must “look good” on mobile devices. That’s technology, and easily solved these days.

The less obvious implications are corollaries of previous points:

5.1) Phones are awful devices for reading

Expecting your audience to read lengthy content on a mobile device is setting yourself up for failure. Everything I said above about not wanting to read your stuff applies even more when they’re looking at it via a small screen in their hand.

Takeaway: be short and concise. Choose your topics wisely.

5.2) Phone visitors don’t scroll, they “flick”

The difference is subtle, but if you watch phone users, you’ll see they often don’t scroll through pages of content; they flick through it.

Think of it as hyper-speed scrolling where all you see is a blur. They’re looking for the bottom line. Everything inbetween is lost to them.

Takeaway: write for flicking: important stuff up top, “above the fold”. Focus on the bottom line.

6) Attention spans are much shorter than you think

You’re still here? You’re in a minority. Particularly in today’s busy, social media, news bite world, people lose interest in seconds.

Not only does this reinforce everything I’ve mentioned above, it makes even the best designed and written content that much less likely to be fully consumed.

Four things you can do about it

It’s time to act on this knowledge about your site visitors and what they won’t do. There’s a lot they will do, if — and only if — you put your audience above your ego and preconceptions.

1) Prioritize relentlessly

“Focusing on everything is focussing on nothing.” You don’t serve your customers by trying to be all things to all people and trying to provide everything to everyone all at once.

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize — not what you want, but what they want.

And you have seconds — literally seconds — to deliver it and get their attention.

  • Restaurant? Make your menu one click away.
  • Retail? Put your hours and location right there on your home page.
  • Customer service? Put the the contact information front and center.
  • Educational? Make it clear where to start.

Pick the one thing your customers are coming to you for. One thing. Make sure it’s impossible to miss.

Only then can you move on to the next “one thing”, and the next, and the next.

2) Provide focus and clarity

Don’t make your customers wade through a lot of clutter to find what they need.

Don’t overload pages with things that make you feel good but get in the way of serving your site visitors.

Make what they’re looking for clear and easy to find.

3) Give them what they want

Years ago, I worked with a non-profit that had an important message they wanted everyone to hear. Their materials were chock full of information about their mission, their accomplishments, and how wonderful they were.

It was all a waste. They were pushing what they wanted people to hear, not what people were interested in. They led the horse to water, but it stood there paying it no mind whatsoever.

You will not succeed by trying to force someone to read your materials. You’ll only succeed by providing what people are looking for.

4) Use data, not feelings

There are a number of sources of hard data about your website visitors you can use to find out exactly what they really want.

Analytics. This is technology that tells you what pages on your site are the most popular, where your site visitors come from, what technology they use, and more. It’s what allowed me to determine, for example, that half of the visitors to that pet-oriented site above were using a phone.

Surveys. Ask your existing customers open-ended questions. Don’t “spin” the results with your own preconceptions or ideas, but analyze them for clear trends and information. It’s how I determined that my Ask Leo! audience was significantly more mature than I expected. As a result, I adjusted my topic choices and writing style to serve them better.

Questions. We all get questions. Use those questions and their trends and timeliness to find out what your audience is looking for. Resist the urge to “spin” or interpret what you see, but objectively analyze it to determine what people want. You may be surprised.

It’s more crowded than ever online. The good news is that by being aware of your customer’s priorities and being respectful of your customer’s time, you may be given one of the internet’s most valuable assets: your customer’s attention.

Do this by coming from a place of service to those customers, and you’ll be miles ahead of most of the online businesses you encounter.

27 comments on “You Are Not Your Customer”

  1. >> You’re still here? You’re in a minority.

    Heh, no doubt.

    Seriously though, what a thoroughly superb essay. Thank you for taking the time and interest to write it. I am glad I took the time and interest tip read it.

  2. A well written article Leo.
    I remember when “Do not put animated GIFs on your web page” was enlightened advice.
    It is a bit frightening about how people are building their world view and the information they gather (or miss) to make critical decisions.
    I found out that, due to information overload and only using phones, that it is almost useless sending emails with photos to distant family and friends.

  3. I wondered just the other day if you were still publishing when I found a copy of one of your articles that I had printed.

    Today’s article helped me formulate my response to members, of a club I belong to, that want to promote a seminar and seem puzzled that so few are willing to sign up (and pay) for a two-day event that long-time attenders feel is so great. The hard truth is that the general public doesn’t care about what a few of us are interested in and care about.

    Thanks, Dennis

  4. “Then there’s the minority of the minority who take the time to comment.” You make it easy – there’s almost nothing important enough to bother commenting on when you have to create an account, wade through 500 noScript settings to figure out which one you need to enable, or spend 15 minutes clicking on the “street signs” and “storefronts” just to ACCESS the freakin’ comment box. So, thank *you*!

  5. Fifty years ago my mother tried to tell my father it was about what the customer wanted, not what he wanted. Subsequently, they were forced to sell their business because he did not listen to the customer. They changed, he didn’t.

    My husband and I have been in business for over 30 years; mostly with my working outside of it, but bookeeping behind the scenes. Five years ago I came to work full time and tripled our revenue. Why? Because I pay attention to what customers want and what they say. I troll the competition. I watch my kids and grandkids: how they use their smart phones and tablets. I see what other people are doing and imitate and integrate it. Do I use it? Nah? Do I like it? Nah. But it is not about me! It’s all about the customer.

    Like you, hardly a day goes by that I am not blindsided by a customer’s request or question or remark. After this long, you would have thought that we’d heard it all. Not so! This stuff comes right out of the bright blue sky! LOL

    GREAT POST! I passed this on to my daughter. She is starting a small business and I try to get it through her head: It is not about you!

  6. Truth. It is unbelievable how many businesses make is so difficult for the customer to find the most important information (location/phone/hours) on their website. And sometimes when they do, it’s buried at the bottom in mice type!

  7. Sometimes, not scrolling isn’t even a choice. My Mom is elderly, and when I assist her with ordering something online, I notice that she seldom even NOTICES that there’s more than a single screenful of text. “Scroll bars, Mom, scroll bars,” I gently tease, oh so often!

  8. You are right. Most people have short attention spans and there is too much information out there. I am called upon to fix computers and the number of times I have given the advice to back up their data is legion. I force myself to read most of the web pages, looking for information, but it would be nice if people used your suggestions and it would save me much time!

  9. Two items I would like to ad Leo.
    Keep you website up to date. Even if it is a everyday requirement.
    Publish your information. Don’t make me ask for it. When I visit a retailer, if they have ask for a quote, I’m gone.
    As a subset, don’t try to make me register on a site. I am sick and tired of it.

  10. I’m old and retired; don’t need this for any real necessity, but I enjoy learning and reading. This was worth reading, and I learned something. Thanks. Comments were good also.

  11. Leo, I value all of your columns and the information you provide, but this one is especially useful and thought-provoking. I’m re-reading it and sharing it. As a technology support person for almost 19 years, I have seen an evolution of users and products and needs. There is one overriding need that I have heard for all of those years–“Fix my problem!”–that I constantly have to focus on. There is so much more that could be done for their products and in terms of teaching people and empowering them to better manage and take control of their products, but they really don’t care about any of that. Most people want just the fix and then move on. That goes against everything I believe, but the customer is always right and I must listen to them. You are right…it’s not about me. Thank you for the reminder!

  12. A terrific article, one that is applicable to all small (and large) businesses. I really enjoyed reading – the whole article!!

  13. Leo – You have made the gigantic leap from “knowledge” to “wisdom”, from “expert” to “guru”.
    Thanks for all of the help which you provide.

  14. Then there’s the minority of the minority of the minority that reads the full article, writes a comment, and reads all the comments others have made. You’re article is 100% correct. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. I’m with Joe above, adding to the minority of the minority but truly because it was great, great content! Thanks so much for this!

    • @Debbie…it’s because I don’t see any ‘trolls’ here.

      I read that our economy was based on food, then land when agriculture and mining, and then labour with the industrial revolution, more recently it was knowledge and with the rise of the internet we have now become an attention based economy.

      So giving trolls any attention creates ‘currency’ but I prefer to spend my ‘currency’ on the Leo’s of the world. I have the power of the click which can be stalled if the author has me in their grip.

  16. Thanks for the article. It was time well spent. I have a small internet store and will now go back to my product description and edit it to just item data and not MY intended use of it. I see that in my analytics report on how long a person is on my site and how long looking at the product. I have looked at other successful sites and see how clean and uncomplicated it is. I
    WILL make some changes. Thanks for this article. Now I will go back and print it for reference.

  17. Thanks for this post Leo, I read it all, including the comments, and included three of my own.

    I replaced Customer with Other as I am known for telling a short story long. Thanks…I think.

  18. Wonderful, and to the point! It makes me mad, because it so clearly points out what I’ve known for ages (I’m 80-plus), but do not practice –I still write for myself, as this response illustrates.

    Skipping the “how to make them drink” part, and just addressing “leading them to water”: other than sending a link that won’t get clicked on, how can I get copies to folk I want to **make** read it? Can I just copy and send it? My record at getting folk to actually take my advice isn’t too good.

    • You can’t make anyone read anything no matter how you deliver it. Sadly that’s actually part of the point of this article. 🙂

      You have to present something they want.

  19. Fantastic, to the point article! Now all I have to do is figure out how to implement it into my small Equestrian business. For fear of doing it wrong over done nothing, which I seen to be alone in that space of thinking as I rarely find the self help needed to get something, anything rather than nothing coveyed to my customers online. But you’ve simplified much of what was distancing me from tacking the leap.
    First, I need to figure out how to make my biz Facebook page more closely follow your suggestions ((it’s pathetic, lol), from there I think a simple but to the point website shouldn’t be that difficult, I just need a way to integrate scheduling onto the site & I’ve yet to find a scheduling app/program that’s truly suitable for an Equestrian lesson program offering group lessons at various levels with multiple instructors on a selection of 8 to 14 different horses… Perhaps I should worry about that later but what if I build a site and then find a scheduling program that’s not compatible (in comes the fear of doing nothing). Goodness I talked myself into find something positive & send to have talked myself back to square one, there’s a problem or pattern creating a viscous cycle that I must find a way to overcome.