Your Most Important Customer Is the One You May Not See (Yet)

A satisfied customer is the gift that keeps on giving. But who is really your customer? Are you sure? It may be time to look beyond your end users (and your product). Here’s how to do it, and why it’s so worthwhile.

Ah, the holidays. Tis the season I get a jump on buying and wrapping my kids’ presents, only to have some YouTube ad pop up with the toy that is “THE ONLY THING I WANT.” I don’t want to be a Scrooge, so naturally, I search for it on Amazon. They call it a washable rainbow color-me-doll. I call it a $30 mess that I will be keeping away from all electronics and cleaning up every day of the two weeks she plays with it. Bah, humbug.

Surely my child’s moment/several days of joy is worth more than $30 and my time spent sopping up colored water…right? Will her receiving/not receiving the gift be a core memory that will propel her to a national leadership position/extensive therapy? Even in this low-stakes, low-complexity situation, there are calculations being made.

This same dynamic exists in every purchase of any product or service. Yet in our relentless focus on user experience, we too often forget that none of that will matter unless the product or service makes it to the user’s hands. The decision maker needs to (literally) buy in.

Why is it So Hard to Get Right?

We’re all decision makers, purchasers, and users. Even though we live this every day (and probably have plenty of suggestions for management), there are barriers to addressing these pain points when we head to the office.

  1. We may lack insight into the buying journey and the players involved. You can’t solve a problem you don’t see. Without an understanding of who is involved in the buying process, their considerations, and their product and purchase experience, it’s like throwing (expensive) darts at a (very distant) dartboard.
  2. The decision maker’s product pain points are often a blind spot. In the scenario above, the user’s perspective is obvious – kids love art, rainbows, making a mess. The decision maker’s pain points with regard to the product won’t be obvious unless you take time to learn about them. For more complex or high-stakes products and services (e.g., Financial products, insurance) that blind spot is even larger – and more critical to address.
  3. There are outside pressures to perfect the user experience above all else. These can be financial and institutional. If your company’s origin story is bound up in product development and you have entire organizations focused on it, that’s where the focus will lie. If you have a bust of a product, that’s where the publicity will fall. You don’t have enough budget to do deep research on every player in the process – how do you identify the most critical to address?
  4. Leadership believes that the buying process won’t change. Oof. This is probably the toughest hurdle to jump – in well-established industries, there can be decades of history proving them right.  However, examples abound of entire categories that were transformed by new technology and scrappy competitors. (see: insurance, car buying, grocery, travel…)

The Path to Understanding is Paved with Small Steps

All of these challenges can be overcome by learning and activating that knowledge. The good news? You don’t need a massive research budget. If you have one, by all means use it. But don’t forget that there are plenty of small ways to begin and continue to understand the factors at play.

Develop personas and map the customer journey.

With skillfully led customer conversations, you can gain a deep, qualitative view of your decision maker categories and their needs – fast. Persona development and journey mapping  leverages outside experts to build honest and impartial profiles of the players based on conversations with a small sample of prospects. In just a month or two, you will have briefs in hand that are specifically designed to help you activate for success.

Leverage your existing touchpoints to learn more.  

Buyer and payer touchpoints can be low-hanging fruit for insight mining, with data ripe for analysis. Decision maker touchpoints can be a bit more challenging – but it is possible to get a view of their process. If you have an active social media presence, comments and reviews are the best way to start. Even in a B2B context, people comment and share opinions on their purchase considerations. If you don’t, you can still search platforms for mentions and pick up on any chatter. The emergence of AI text analysis tools makes pulling this data much more efficient. But good old Google trends still can provide some visibility into how people are researching your product. For instance, a search on that coveted doll showed “Mold-Fungi” as a related term. (Vindication – my concerns are not totally unfounded.)

While data is great, probably the best source of deep information is other human beings – namely, your Customer Service team. They’re the front line. Meet with them, find out what they hear most about. Customer tickets illuminate their expectations and how the product may not be delivering on them (AI can help you mine these, but be sure to check its conclusions with an actual person). If a product isn’t yet launched, you can ask service reps what they’re hearing about analogous offerings, and proactively fill those gaps. Make this a habit, and you’ll have a fountain of customer perspective for continuous learning.

Take a look at your strongest competitors.

They’re in the same business as you, so chances are they’re working on the same challenge. Which of your competitors are most beloved by customers? What are they doing so right? While you can employ some of the same tools for internal analysis to the task of external analysis, you’re less likely to uncover the rich insights that your competition works hard to guard from public view. For a more thorough look into competitive practices, it’s a good idea to tap into some outside expertise. They can bring a wider variety of tools, staff, and connections, and – critically – an impartial perspective to both research and recommended actions.     

Think beyond the product with comprehensive Go-to-Market planning.

Product success is about so much more than the product itself. This means that many different functional groups play critical roles in creating the next runaway hit. Ideally, your organization’s SOP includes a cross-functional team responsible for shepherding a new product into the world. In practice, priorities and politics (and incentives) often prevent this from happening.

More good news: it’s never too late! Go-to-market strategy isn’t only for brand new products – it is an incredibly helpful practice for existing ones as well. An expertly led multidisciplinary GTM planning effort assembles your company’s Avengers to think, evaluate, analyze, diagnose, plan, and ultimately launch new capabilities, expansions, or even re-works. Guided collaboration like this can be the secret sauce that accelerates (or even resuscitates) your product and your investment.

The Bottom Line: Tis the Season to Revisit your “Product”

When is a product just a product? The answer is: never. Even the simplest product is a solution to a problem.

Creating a successful product depends on understanding what problems you’re trying to solve, and for whom. Remember: both buyers and end-users matter when trying to deliver a “solve.” And becoming a valued part of your customer’s life (and wallet share) depends on solving those problems for all stakeholders.

It’s not an easy job, but it’s possible. Some might even call it fun. It’s most certainly worth it.

Further Advisory helps marketing, product, and sales executives translate their business vision and goals into reality. We support customer segmentation, pricing analysis, personas development, customer/buyer journey mapping, and more, accompanied by pragmatic roadmaps that set plans into motion and drive real results.

About the author


  • Erin Catalina

    Erin has over 15 years of progressive experience in digital marketing, combining brand strategy and both analytical and technical skills to drive measurable business results for a variety of Fortune 500 Retail, CPG, and B2B companies.

  • Sean Gilligan

    Sean has spent his career focused on customer interactions – across sales, marketing, and customer service. In various engagements he has developed customer strategy, designed process, organization, and technology solutions to enable those strategies.

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