Entrepreneurs: Your customer is your business's soul mate

Customer Intimacy: The unfair advantage of smart entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs: customer intimacy is your unfair advantage.

“I choose you.”

When you started your business, you raised your hand and said, “I am the one.” You decided you weren’t going to wait to have someone anoint you, or crown you king or queen of your field.  You made a decision to not wait for permission to make life better.

But in the choice to choose yourself, inherently you were making a decision to choose another: the customer your business serves.

She is the only reason your business exists.

You weren’t choosing her to be “the one” to buy all your stuff and line your pockets with money. That’s not what that choice was about.

In choosing your ideal customer, you were declaring who you would devote your time and attention to. The one whose problems you would work to create solutions for. The one whose dreams and desires you’d work tirelessly to make a reality.

You were choosing the one your business would endlessly work to serve. You were choosing your business’s soul mate.

And that simple, yet pivotal choice was the beginning of developing the kind of customer intimacy that will grow your business over the long-term. Here’s why.

The type of love affair your business needs to thrive

To be clear, when I talk about intimacy, and love affairs, I’m not talking about starting a romantic relationship with your customer. That could get real messy real quick.

But the truth is, your customer’s importance to your business is as significant as the most important relationships you have in your life.

The official definition of intimacy includes such descriptions as being “close,” “familiar,” and “having a detailed or deep understanding of.”

When it comes to gaining an unfair advantage for business, you need to develop an uncommon kind of intimacy with your customers. The kind that fosters a type of love Carrie Bradshaw was talking about just before she and Mr. Big finally got together for good in Sex and the City finale.

Entrepreneurs, this is the kind of love you need to cultivate with your customers. Carrie Bradshaw - I am someone who is looking for love

The kind of love that makes you deliver an impassioned soliloquy:

The kind of love that will cause you to make grand gestures like this:

Entrepreneurs: don't be afraid to make grand gestures to prove your love for your customers

or to write love letters to your beloved every day for a year straight even when you don’t hear back from them:

The kind of love that makes you continue to love, give and serve even when the response you seek isn’t immediately returned. It’s the kind of love that causes you to go deeper to continue to look for ways to win the heart and mind of your business’s soul mate. It’s the kind of love that will make you so obsessed with building a business that serves her like none other, that she is compelled to choose you.

That’s how you build a business people love to buy from.

That’s how you become a successful entrepreneur.

That’s how you live the good life while getting paid to change the world.

And the way you build this kind of two-way mutually beneficial relationship with your customer is by loving her first.

Here are the benefits you’ll receive when you do.

How customer intimacy gives your business an unfair advantage

Like any relationship, getting to know your customer on a deep level and creating a lasting bond with her requires work.

But this is work that is absolutely worth your investment. That’s why Harvard Business School described customer intimacy as one of three fundamental business strategies:

Companies that have taken leadership positions in their industries in the last decade typically have done so by narrowing their business focus, not broadening it. They have focused on delivering superior customer value in line with one of three value disciplines – operational excellence, customer intimacy, or product leadership. They have become champions in one of these disciplines while meeting industry standards in the other two.

So unless your strength is operational excellence (think FedEx), or product leadership (think Apple), then customer intimacy is the strategy that will enable you to win.

Here are some of the benefits you’ll get from embracing this approach.

1. Gives you a roadmap

One of the most difficult aspects of building a business is the blank sheet of paper. When you create something that only existed in your head, there’s an abundance of choices you have to make to bring your vision to life.

But because of the paradox of choice, all those options can serve to paralyze you rather than help you take the necessary action.

When you follow the clues your customers give you about how to best serve them, it serves as a roadmap for making the right decisions about how to grow your business.

So if you’re wondering what product to launch next, build the one your customer wants to buy.

When you’re trying to decide whether or not you need to start an Instagram account, look to your customers to see if that’s where they hang out.

When you’re racking your brain to discover the magic words to use to describe your products and services, use the ones your customers already use.

Then you’ll no longer have to guess about what the right thing to do is. Your knowledge of your customer will guide you every step of the way.

2. Creates belonging

In his book The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth, Chris Brogan made a bold declaration.

Business is about belonging. It might seem strange that a book that encourages freakiness and the refusal to fit in praises the idea of belonging. But you can see how these two ideas are different, correct? “Fitting in” often means shaving off your unique edges, hiding and masking what defines you, discarding any behaviors or appearances or images that prompt others to question you or push away from you. “Belonging” is about finding that place where you finally let out a deep breath you had no idea you were holding and feeling with great certainty that the people around you understand you.

You want to create an environment for your customers that enables them to exhale. That makes them feel like they are exactly where they belong.

And the way to do that is by having a deep enough connection to who they are, what they are about, the challenges they experience, and what they need most.

Here’s an example of how that played out for me.

Unfortunately, I need to avoid gluten to keep my body healthy. This makes eating in restaurants quite difficult because most items on the menu have gluten in them. And I hate being “that person” who has to ask a ton of questions about what’s in the food, or whether or not something was cooked in the same grease as other gluten-containing foods. Ugh.

So you’ve got to understand how delighted I was to come across La Pastroneria, a restaurant here in Buenos Aires where EVERYTHING on the menu is gluten-free.

And not the kind of gluten-free that tastes gluten-free. The food is just delicious, and it just so happens to be gluten-free.

La Pastroneria gluten-free restaurant in Buenos Aires makes me feel like I belong.
I was giddy that I was able to order a sandwich. I was not so giddy about the cream cheese they put on the baked potato..

This is a restaurant where I feel like I belong. I don’t have to ask any questions. I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ll have choices of food to eat. This restaurant was designed with me in mind.

So whenever I’m too lazy to cook or want to grab a bite out, this place is always first on my list.

The more intimate you are with your customers, the easier it will be for you to create an experience that demonstrates that you get them. An experience that feels like home. An experience that makes her feel like your business is exactly where she belongs.

3. Creates loyalty

Belonging breeds loyalty. Loyal customers are like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow for your business.

These are the customers who buy more, cost less to service, and they tell others about you.

I’ve already taken 2 friends with me (who are not gluten-free) to eat at La Pastroneria. I’ve been in there so many times, the staff already knows what I want.

I am a loyal customer.

When someone knows you, speaks your language, and creates a sense of belonging, why oh why would you go anywhere else? Why would you risk going somewhere else and having a less than stellar experience? No, no, no.

When you act in a way that demonstrates your love and the level of intimacy you have with your ideal customer, they will stick around. They’ll bring their friends too.

4. Enables you to compete more effectively

In his book The Obstacle is the Way, best-selling author Ryan Holiday explained the approach you need to defeat a bigger competitor:

In fact, having the advantage of size or strength or power is often the birthing ground for true and fatal weakness. The inertia of success makes it much harder to truly develop good technique. People or companies who have that size advantage never really have to learn the process when they’ve been able to coast on brute force. And that works for them…until it doesn’t. Until they meet you and you make quick work of them with deft and oblique maneuvers, when you refuse to face them in the one setting they know: head-to-head.

We’re in the game of little defeating big. Therefore, Force can’t try to match Force.

Of course, when pushed, the natural instinct is always to push back. But martial arts teach us that we have to ignore this impulse. We can’t push back, we have to pull until opponents lose their balance. Then we make our move.

Your size gives you the ability to create a level of intimacy with your customers the big companies cannot. It helps you dig in on a deeper, more personal level to better create a space that makes your customers feel at home with you.

The waitresses at La Pastroneria now know I don’t want queso crema on my baked potato. I know where they are from, why one of them works two jobs, and where she plans to take her next vacation.

The fact that they aren’t a big, faceless, corporate behemoth allows us to connect with each other on a level that’s more meaningful. More intimate.

Customer intimacy is your unfair advantage. Use it.

The essential elements needed to win with customer intimacy

Developing the love affair you need to have with your customers begins with a choice. But it certainly doesn’t end there.

To reap the many benefits that come from customer intimacy, you’ve got to embrace the essential elements that foster it.

Let’s take a look at each.

1. Research

You don’t win with customer intimacy by basing all your decisions on gut feelings and assumptions you have about your ideal customers.

You’ve got to have real data.

Remember, your customers leave clues that tell you exactly what you need to do to win their hearts. You’ve got to go on a hunt to find those clues and assemble them in a format that will enable you to follow the blueprint to business success.

What kind of information are you searching for? You need to know the dreams, desires, fears, and frustrations of your soul mate. You need to know how they talk about their most pressing problems.

You need to know what energizes them, what causes them to get stuck and overwhelmed. You need to know what inspires them, what turns them off, and the little things they appreciate and value. You need to know their weak points as well as the areas in which they’re strong.

In real life, this kind of research largely comes through observation and interacting with your customers over time. You’re constantly filing data and tidbits about what you learn in your head.

But with your customers, you’ve got to proactively go out and search for these insights. The good news, it doesn’t have to cost a lot to do it. In fact, you discover much of the information you need for free.

Here are great places to start:

  • Blog post and forum comments
  • Amazon.com book and product reviews
  • 1:1 interviews and conversations
  • Surveys

2. Empathy

Empathy is all about walking a mile in your customers’ shoes. It’s about understanding what their plight is and using that information to create products, services, and experiences that showcase that you understand.

Here’s what researcher and best-selling author Brene Brown has to say about empathy:

Empathy is about being present with someone, and if you are present and engaged and take the armor off, you’ll know what that person across from you needs.

A growing body of research supports the impact that getting acquainted with your customers has on your work. In one study, call center employees who interacted with students who were recipients of the scholarships they were requesting donations for, were both more productive and mote effective in raising money.

Hearing the students’ stories, what life was like for them before the scholarship, and how it changed after they received the money enabled the call center employees to step into the shoes of the people they were serving.

Developing empathy for your customers will increase your ability to serve them. It will help you do a better job for them. It will better equip you to create a place where they belong.

3. Vulnerability

Your customers need to get to know, like, and trust you before they fall in love with you. And one of the ways they will do that is by connecting with you the person.

Not you the robot. Not you the picture of perfection. But you, the flawed human being that creates products and services they love to buy.

Relationships are a two-way street. So even though you have to make the choice to love your customer first, you need to give them an opportunity to connect with you at a personal level.

That will enable them to develop a bond with you that transcends the transactional.

That doesn’t mean pouring your heart out and giving them a play by play of every break-up and disappointment you’ve ever had.

But it does mean letting your customers know who you are, what your story is, what you’re about, why you do what you do, and what drives you. Give them a glimpse into your world that will reinforce their desire to choose you.

I got all in the feels a while back as I read an email from Ash Ambirge from The Middle Finger Project:

Ash Ambirge vulnerability email

I had heard pieces of her story before, but as she shared some of her life experiences in this message, I connected to her on a deeper level. I recognized some of her story in me. I felt like she knew me and got me.

Here’s Brene Brown again on the benefits of vulnerability:

[Daring greatly] means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations.

You open the door to build a strong relationship with your customers when you start by empathizing and seeing them. You give them an opportunity to love you back when you allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be seen too.

4. Quality time

Soul mates spend time with each other. It’s how they are able to deepen their degree of intimacy over time.

That doesn’t mean you need to spend every day with your customers. But it does mean you need to have regular contact with them.

That can be in communications you send to them via email.

That could be in you having 1:1 conversations often to make sure you keep a pulse on what’s going on with them.

Or it could be in just continuing to watch and observe what they do on an ongoing basis.

Sometimes your customers won’t even know they need something, making them incapable of articulating it to you. But when you spend time with them, you can discover clues that help you address what your soul mate can’t express to you.

When I worked my corporate job, my fellow marketing colleagues and I would spend time in the field with our sales representatives. That time spent talking with them, shadowing them, seeing first hand what they were dealing with as they entered doctors’ offices each day deepened our knowledge and connection.

So instead of operating based upon inteligence we’d captured a year and a half ago, we were able to better tailor what we did in the home office based upon what we’d experienced in the field the previous week.

The more time we spent with our field sales teams, the more they trusted us. It made them feel like like we understood and cared about what was going on in their world. The more time we spent with the doctors, the more comfortable they got with expressing their true feelings about our products.

5. Communication

You have to talk to your customers. That’s how you get rich insights into their world. That’s how you add value to them. That’s how you tell them about your products and services.

It’s how you convert strangers into friends, into customers.

Your effectiveness at communicating will enable you to create the transformation they come to you for.

The way you communicate can vary depending upon your business model, and the stage at which your customer is in with you.

But it could be through your blog posts, books, speeches you give, over lunch for Taco Tuesday, or even through email correspondence.

When you say what needs to be said, when it needs to be said, the way it needs to be said, you will become a more valued, and deeply entrenched part of your customers’ world.

6. Consideration

When a doctor’s office keeps a wide variety of up-to-date magazines in the waiting room, that’s consideration.

When restaurants put baby changing stations in both the women’s and men’s restrooms, that’s consideration.

When the grocery store keeps umbrellas by the door for you to use in case it rains (knowing you’ll bring it back next time), that’s consideration.

When the bank encourages you to bring your dog inside the branch (rather than leave them in the car), and even provides treats for them, that’s consideration.

When the hotel provides refreshing, ice cold flavored water for guests in the lobby (especially on a hot summer day), that’s consideration.

Creating a loving relationship with your customers is as much about the actions you take to demonstrate you care, as the words you use. Sometimes it’s about the big grand gestures.

But much of the time it will be the thoughtful, small things you put in place to show that you thought of every possible scenario, and took action to make them feel more comfortable and cared for.

This is how you create an experience your customers can’t live without. This is how you get them to feel at home with you.

7. Commitment

Just like with relationships in your personal life, developing and deepening intimacy with your customers requires commitment.

There will be times when it will just be easier to go with assumptions rather than getting data. It will be easier to take the safe route, instead of allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It will be easier to communicate in a manner that is most convenient, rather than the way that’s most effective.

But if you want to create the kind of intimacy that gives your business that unfair advantage, and enables you to reap all the rewards that come with it, you’ve got to commit yourself to continuously doing the work to develop and strengthen the relationship.

Don’t get complacent. Commit yourself to going deeper instead.

It’s time to unleash your unfair advantage

You’ve already made the decision to make life better. But it’s not enough to just play the game.

If you’re going to play, you might as well give it everything you’ve got so you can win.

Customer intimacy is a smart strategy you can absolutely win with.

But you’ve got to tackle the essentials to start reaping the many rewards.

Then as you go along, declaring and proving your love, your business’s soul mate will start to take notice. Then it will only be a matter of time before she starts falling head over heels for your business too.

The choice is yours.

Commit to getting serious about customer empathy today.

Here’s a resource that can help you with that.

Unleash my unfair advantage