Do You Truly Know What Your Customers’ Decision Criteria Are?

As business owners and entrepreneurs we tend to think that we know our customers well and we know what they want. However, what we believe to be true about our customers and what they believe to be true are often vastly different.

I’ve been reminded of that over the past few weeks as my wife has been deciding what kind of car she wants. She started out rather broadly (truck, sedan, or SUV). She then started with Consumer Reports (and especially watching their video reviews), then reading reviews, talking to people, looking at every car in the parking lot or on the road, etc.

She ultimately ruled out trucks first and then sedans and finally settled on the small/compact SUV category. After doing her research and talking with people, she settled on three SUVs that she wanted to test drive, the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4 and the Mazda CX 5. Without walking you through the whole machinations of how she decided on which one to buy, let me fast forward to her three top criteria.

  1. I don’t want a “Mom Car” (i.e. I want a car that’s stylish—and not a minivan)
  2. I want a car that’s easy to put chairs etc. in for the beach (or to pick up stuff at Lowes for a home project)
  3. I want a car that’s fun to drive (she loves my Infiniti)

What’s interesting is that most of these criteria aren’t criteria that are marketed by car companies. In fact, especially for number one, the exact opposite. I’ll never forget the day that Jacquie said, “I’ve decided I don’t want a Subaru Forrester (the Motor Tread Car of the Year for 2014).” I asked, “Why?” She said, “Because I can’t get the image out of my mind from their ad (it’s about a mom and her daughter—i.e. it made the car out to be a mom car).”

Note: Don’t read too much into my wife’s comments about “Mom cars.” She loves being a mom and has nothing against mom cars. It’s just that we’re in our 50’s now and she’s ready to be out of the minivan stage of life.

And it’s not just my wife’s criteria. My father recently bought a Hyundai Sante Fe Sport. When I asked him why he finally decided on the Hyundai, his answer was, “I wanted a SUV with enough truck space to put four golf bags in.” Why? Because he’s a golfer and whenever he and his buddies go golfing, they tend to drive together.

When I asked a friend why his wife bought a Mini Cooper, his answer was, “At her height, she can’t buy a sedan because she’d have to get in the trunk to empty it. Because she regularly has to put a lot of classroom material in her car, she needed a small hatchback to make putting stuff in and getting it out easy.”

Now, over the past month or so, I’ve spent a lot of time on car company sites, but I can’t remember reading a whole lot of copy that connected with the above customer decision criteria—which is why I’ve been thinking a lot about how customer’s make decisions this month, and why you and I are often wrong.

I. Assuming is Usually Unwise

How many times have you been in front of a sales person who was trying to sell you on the features of their product or solution? Too many to remember. And from the sales person’s perspective, they felt they knew you and what you were looking for. But that isn’t always true. Customers aren’t monolithic. Your criteria and mine are probably different. So assuming we know is almost always a bad choice.

For example, when we arrived at the Honda dealer, the sales person quickly jumped into comparing the CR-V to the other options and why her option was better, without finding out what my wife was really looking for and why. This lead to some strategic missteps like continually talking about how Honda’s retain their value better than the other brands (which was/is irrelevant to us because we tend to drive our cars for 8+ years before buying a new one).

However, before you and I give her a hard time, how many times have you made the same mistake? I see this time and time again when I talk with clients. When I ask them, “When was the last time you had a focus group or talked with your customers and prospects about what they want? Or how they choose what they’re going to buy?” the answer is almost always, “I can’t remember,” or “It’s been a long time,” or “Never.”

II. Asking is Always Appropriate

When we “don’t know what we don’t know” bad decisions are usually made. So, the best thing for any of us to do is to simply ask. Customers and prospects don’t mind. Asking shows we’re actually interested in them and their opinions.

  • What are you wrestling with these days?
  • What’s keeping you up at night, making it hard to sleep?
  • What do you wish we, or someone like us, would create?
  • How do you decide what [fill in product/service like “car”] you’re going to buy?
  • What do you think we don’t get about you and what you value or care about?
  • When we talk about XYZ in our marketing, does that help you make a decision or not?
  • What in this marketing piece is helpful? What isn’t?

So, what questions do you need to ask to uncover how your prospects and customers actually make their decisions to buy (or not buy) what you’re offering?

III. Consider Using an Outside Consultant

Note: Don’t write this off as self-serving. One of the things every leader has to learn at some point in their life is that most people won’t tell a leader the truth (meaning, the full truth). In general, they usually tell a leader what they believe the leader wants to hear or what they want the leader to believe so they don’t get in trouble.

And we all do this. For example, when a server comes by your table and the food is fair at best and the server asks, “How’s your meal?” most of us say, “Good.” It’s not that we’re trying to lie, it’s that we’ve done the mental math and concluded, “It’s not worth the time and effort to tell her, the one who has no control, the food is overcooked and poorly seasoned.” It’ll make her day worse. The cook will get in trouble. The manager will then come over and have to talk with us, etc. So, we simply say what we know the server wants to hear just because it’s not worth the time and effort to tell the full truth.

That same principle applies to you and me when we’re asking our customers and prospects about what they think about our products and/or services and how they actually make their buying decisions. In general, most people won’t be brutally honest. They’ll tell us what they think we want to hear. Which is why, if you really want to get the truth of what your customers and prospects think and feel, you’ll want to consider using an outside consultant who doesn’t have any stake in the game.

However, regardless of whether you choose to use option three or not, I would highly encourage you to take some time over the next month or two to really dig down and consider how your customers and prospects really make their decisions to buy because how they decide is how you should market. And, if your experience is anything like most business owners and entrepreneurs, you just might be surprised at some of the answers you uncover.

To your accelerated success,

P.S. If you have some other ideas or experiences with finding out that your prospects and customers decision-making criteria are, make sure you share them in the comments section below (of click here >> if you’re reading this by RSS or email)

P.P.S. In case you’re curious, my wife decided on a Soul Red Mazda CX 5 Grand Touring

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 9.20.36 AM