How Customer Profiling Can Screw You Up

When a company puts together its business plan, or is designing its next product, one of the first things to establish is:

'Who's your target customer?'

This is traditionally defined as a customer profile - what industry they are in, their annual revenue, perhaps where they are located, and so on. It's designed to create a snapshot of the potential customers' vital statistics, and help the vendor qualify leads that show promise.

And from a customer perspective, it stinks.

Here's an example. My company has recently been interested in social media monitoring software, and has contacted a number of vendors, to understand what's available, features, benefits, and pricing.

Product Demo Highway Sign
Product Demo Highway Sign

This is a précis of how some of the conversation went with one of the software vendors we approached, after a brief discussion about their product:

CF: We're interested in finding out more - I understand you run demo's, can we set one up?

Vendor: Well, that depends. How many full time employees do you have?

CF: [Pause] Since you ask, we run an associate model, so the number of people we use goes up and down according to the type of projects we're running. Is that relevant?

Vendor: We don't normally offer demo's for small companies like that. I don't think you are likely to be big enough to suit our most popular package.

CF: How long does a demo take you?

Vendor: An hour.

CF: That doesn't sound like a huge investment for you.

Vendor: It may not sound that way to you.

CF: Look - I think a demo would really help us understand if your product will fit our needs - I have a particular project in mind that we could use to look at.

Vendor: Is the project confirmed? And from an established client?

CF: Are you saying I don't get to see a demo if it's not?

Vendor: I can ask my Manager to see if we can make an exception.

CF: Hmm....can I give you some feedback about your customer experience?

Vendor: I understand what you're feeling, but it's our company policy.

Let's be clear - the vendor was polite throughout, and certainly knew her product in detail. And she no doubt followed her company customer profile qualification to the letter. The trouble was that she framed the whole enquiry from her own perspective - her company policy, its product and who it was supposed to be sold to.

Personally, I felt insulted. She might as well have told me to come back when I had grown up. But our business is customer experience, and from that viewpoint, it was an informative exchange. As a company, our employee size clearly didn't fit the target profile, and from that point on, our appeal as a potential client was limited.

There's nothing wrong with having a target customer profile, and identifying if a prospect may not be the ideal candidate. But that should not prevent a vendor from offering a good customer experience. By framing the situation in the customers' needs, the vendor could have asked how many people would be working on a typical project at one time, or the number of projects that would be running simultaneously. If scale of enterprise was the key factor in pinpointing product suitability, then this could be identified as a series of customer needs, rather than vendor policy requirements. If our company wasn't a good fit with the vendors' offering, it should ideally have been a shared decision. The vendor could then have suggested alternative vendors that might be a better fit at present, without fear of rejecting the customer. After all, circumstances can change.

Since the vendor is in the business of social media monitoring, I have no hesitation in naming them as Crimson Hexagon. If they monitor their own brand, they may find this blog and learn from the account. And we remain interested in their software - who knows, we may even be lucky enough to be granted a demo after all.

But until they start to put customer need ahead of their own internal profiling process, and build that into how firms experience their sales enquiry management, I don't think we'll be doing business.