Know Your Customer: A Treatise on How To Fail Fast In a Demanding World
There weren’t many choices.
My coach had directed me to research other books that were similar to mine either online or at the Barnes and Noble.
A few. The point of this is to know what books are already on the market. What’s selling well. Book designs. Back cover copy. The like.
In other words, fundamental market research.
I’m working on my third book. The first two won prizes. I’m a decent (but not Nobel Prize-winning) writer. No matter how many you’ve written, you’ve still got to do this work.
Because, after all, why on earth produce something that someone else already has on the market? The point is to add value, and fill a niche that clearly needs filling.
Basic. Market. Research.
During a busy time, I ordered a few books off Amazon. At the time I was looking at the over-sixty female market. Women buy and read most of the books. My market focus has since changed but that drove my first purchases off Amazon.com.
I was interested in books that were focused on Women of a Certain Age. On transitioning, living well, the like.
There weren’t many. One caught my eye, its cover a menagerie of lovely colorful butterflies.
A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives, by Lisa Congdon.
I pulled the trigger.
A few days later, the package arrived. The cover was indeed gorgeous. The back cover full of the expected compliments. I have those on my book too. That back cover sells the book.
That night I set up a heating pad (it was still late winter) on my couch. A few fat pillows. Lamp. Cup of steaming green tea and honey.
I was ready.
I opened the book with all the breathy, rich expectation with which I greet all new books and the journeys they proffer.
I couldn’t read a fucking thing.
Let me back up here.
Remember, I said that this book was focused on women of a Certain Age. That would be forty and over.
As a 66-year-old woman, I am part of her market. Not just because I am researching like books, but this one in particular is supposed to speak directly to me.
What a damned shame and a waste of about twenty bucks.
Because whoever had designed the book had used a very thin, breathy type face. Not only that, but it was in 8 pt type at BEST, which rendered the material unreadable. In any light.
This was a book designed by a woman, for women forty and older. The very demographic which needs glasses to begin with for any type face. In fact, in the book business, those who are writing for this demographic now- and not without serious intention- are joking that they might as well go for fourteen-point type on the first publishing.
Because that’s your market, Lisa Congden.
I slammed the book shut, laughing out loud.
Boomers buy books. Gen Xers, who are headed into middle age, buy books (I’m not including digital versions here) Both are wearing glasses by this point. At least readers. Here’s a way to understand this (dated but still largely accurate).
The next night, my friend Sonja, a serious book worm, came by to pick up clothing for consignment. She’s 58. Without giving her any warning, I invited her to open A Glorious Freedom.
Tell me what she thought.
She did. Her eyes bugged out as she struggled to read the tiny, thin type. Then she looked at me aghast.
“I can’t even read this with a magnifying glass!” We guffawed.
This book, with its butterfly cover, sits as a glorious monument to what happens when you don’t know your market. It’s nothing more than what we authors would call a “vanity book.”
You got your book. Name on the cover.
It’s impossible to read without 20/10 vision.
Congden didn’t understand her market.
Their life conditions. What they need to be able to read, in this case.
I had a similar experience a few weeks ago trying my damnedest to purchase panties from Willow. Willow has done a great job- at the surface level- of meeting a very real need for Baby Boomers and their parents (and others) who have incontinence problems. That market wants something that doesn’t give them a bubble butt, is discreet, comes in a discreet package.
I’m not incontinent. However, in my epic adventures on some continents, if you will, I have found myself in a kayak on the ocean for hours. I tend to pee regularly, perhaps more than some, and that can get damned difficult. I’d rather not pee into my dry suit, which of course makes it wet on the wrong side. Or, have my piddle puddle into my kayaking boots.
I am in very good company here. This has nothing to do with age. Those of us who put ourselves into extreme conditions and don’t happen to sport a penis have a wholly different challenge when we have the need, whether it’s stepping outside the tent at night in below-zero weather or out on a very long horseback ride on a thin mountain trail which doesn’t allow for dismounting.
Been there. Colca Canyon, a few years ago, was like that. My horse and I were inches from toppling into the second deepest canyon on earth. No place to pee. In situations like this, a SheWee doesn’t work .
So the idea of a panty that will work for a number of hours is a great idea. Problem is that Willow doesn’t have any kind of setup for those of us who don’t need X number of pants delivered on X schedule.
Look, this idea of locking people into a subscription service is a great idea. Sometimes. Not always. It follows the same thinking that DirecTV and Netflicks and all the other services use to get you signed on, and your money heads into their bank like a steady IV line. Those who buy companies which have subscription services are buying the IV line, not the product. They are buying steady access to your bank account. Especially if you forget about it.
The model assumes one size fits all, which is not only foolish, it gets insulting. As I found out. The Better Business Bureau gets slammed with complaints about folks who get locked into a supplement delivery, change their minds and cannot stop the deliveries. At least not without a massive penalty.
I spent more than four days arguing with several people at Willow. Including one woman, Nina, who must have had the Fear of God put into her about losing the revenue stream when I wanted to just get the free tryout package, and then order as needed. As I need, not as was convenient for the company.
No, she said. We can set it up for once every six months, she said. It didn’t matter how many times I explained that I had to try them out as gear first. I just HAD to stay with the program forever. You cannot order as you need, she said.
To say that I was incensed about her insensitivity is an understatement. Not only that, they twice got both the size and color wrong. One box of extra large (I’m a small) is still sitting on my living room floor. One guy said to simply refuse the box. Two arrived. It was impossible to tell which was which. I opened the wrong box first. I could care less about returning them at this point.
Finally in a fit of frustration I told Nina at full volume that she was to cancel my account immediately.
This is a case of a company that doesn’t understand its market. In many ways it has a good product that meets a need. But there is absolutely no wiggle room for them to serve those of us who are in their target age range who neither are incontinent, nor do we wish to be browbeaten into agreeing to be umbilically attached to a delivery schedule.
That I nearly got into a screaming match with this woman who continued to repeat the same things underscores what is likely to happen if and when we have robots take over more jobs that need to be run by humans.
Um, humans with a brain, that is.
Willow lost all my goodwill. They made a few decisions about the nature of their market. Didn’t even consider that within that market might include one hell of a lot of outliers like me, who first want to try, and then want the option to use as the need arises. In other words there are years I don’t ocean kayak. I hardly need a big supply of Willow panties to start piling up in my closet.
I still fully expect an automatic delivery, despite my best efforts.
This is what happens when you don’t understand your customer base. I can think of a great many people who, like me, are very physically active, are not the least bit incontinent, and might appreciate a product which allows them to keep paddling (or running, or skiing, or climbing. or whatever) without heading for a bush or a shoreline.
That would be athletes of all ages. Not just older folks.
Businesses fail by the thousands every year. This Forbes piece by Eric Wagner explains some of the simplest- and I agree with him, heartbreaking- reasons why.
My favorite point out of his article:
Markets are conversations.
Dialogue is key. And 140 character tweets don’t count. Real dialogue with real customers (via whatever channel is best for them).
When you and I don’t do the research, and stop talking to the very people we want to have as raving fans, we fail. Spectacularly.
My guess? The founders of Willow- who are not themselves Baby Boomers, by the way- made a series of assumptions that were only partly true. As a result, they didn’t design an option into the business plan for an increasing number of very active Boomers who might have sporadic and irregular use of their Willow pants. To have a subscription imposed on us is an insult and feels highly manipulative. We do not like to be told what we HAVE to do in order to get X product. We like our independence.
That’s how you annoy your market. You try to corral them into a behavior that is convenient for the company but not necessarily for you.
You could legitimately argue that the demographic I represent isn’t necessarily the bulk of their market. You’d be right. However, the people I spoke with very much wanted my credit card number and the steady income stream. If you want that, folks, then you design an option for those of us who fit a slightly different profile.
Had Lisa Congden worried less about the look of her book and brought in a sample of her type face to a table full of women who made up her market, I guarantee you, her book wouldn’t look the way it does.
I’d be reading it right now. And likely, recommending it to others, rather than making it a perfect example of what not to do.
Think you know your market? Think again. We all have blinders on. We all suffer from assumptions. We all have our egos tied up in our products and services. Those end up as costly stumbling blocks if we don’t ask different kinds of questions of those we hope to delight.
Ask instead what annoys your market about competitive products? What drives them crazy? What makes them dump a deal?
Whether or not you like their answers, or to accommodate may be inconvenient, isn’t the point. This is your market. Ignore it at your peril.