Customers. We like to think of them as the people who are kind enough to spend their money with us and use our products and services. Even if we’re never going to meet them face to face, it helps to imagine what would happen if we did.

Customers are our friends and family, our neighbours, the people who take the same route to work as we do.

Once we leave the office, we’re just someone else’s customers too.

Companies put a lot of effort and money into understanding their customers. They use clever tools like socio-demographics, cluster analyses, market segmentation, behavioural analysis and the like. Even when you’ve got millions of customers you need to know who they are and what they think.

The problem is you can’t ask them all individually so companies research and extrapolate based on that information.

But that creates another problem. We’re put into little boxes to make it easier for companies to understand us but what we really want is to be treated like an individual.

We’ve all been there.

We have a simple question that we want answered by a real person but instead we’re directed to a vague FAQ page that doesn’t quite solve the issue.

This is where the world of marketing lacks understanding of people’s needs, despite the vast amount of marketing intelligence it collects. We can analyse and segment until the cows come home, but if we only look at real people in terms of their ‘lifetime value’ and their disposable income they won’t be our customers for long.

Real life and real letters

Have a look at some of the standard letters you send to your customers. How would you feel if one landed on your doormat? Great? Annoyed? Furious?

We run an exercise in our workshops where we get our groups to make up characters who could be typical customers, but we treat them as if we know them personally. We build up a picture of their lives, then we show everyone some real letters that their own organisations send to customers .

‘Imagine,’ we say, ‘how your reader will feel when they see that.’

Often, they’re horrified, which is just the way we like it.

“But that’s not real is it?” they ask.

“You made it up just to look bad.”

“We’d never really send something like that to a real person would we?”

It easy to figure out what happened – companies sometimes forgot that their customers are people too. So how do you start to change things and reconnect with your customers?

Think of a person

When you’re writing, think of a real person who could be a customer.

Warren Buffet famously writes his customers’ quarterly reports with his elderly sisters in mind. They don’t understand finance – he writes in a way that explains to an intelligent person what’s happening to their investments. A real expert can explain a complicated subject to people who don’t understand it. There’s no need for jargon and complexity.

When you sit down to write something imagine you know nothing about your organisation. That way you won’t make assumptions. We had a great example in a letter from an HR department to new employees.

‘On your first day, come to the Smith Building,’ it said. Did it tell the new employee how to find the Smith building? No it didn’t.

Another one said,

‘If we have offered you a job, then fill in the enclosed form. If we have not offered you a job, then you might like to look at our website for further positions.’

You’d think that the HR department might be considerate enough to have written two separate letters, one for successful applicants and one for the ones they turned down.

Their mistake was to forget how it feels to be the person reading those letters. Take a few moments to put yourself in your customers’ shoes.

Think of your brand

Every time someone comes into contact with a brand their experience shapes what they think of it. . In our experience, we find that people often forget that they are representing their organisation to the outside world. They don’t realise how important they are. One stroppy email, a mistake in a brochure, a terse phone call and you’ve lost a customer, and they’ll tell all their friends.

They won’t say, ‘I got a letter from woman at the A company which was really confusing, but I don’t suppose they’re all like that. It was probably a one off.’ They’ll say, “I got a really confusing letter from the A company. They’re rubbish.’

Try this for size. Picture your aunt. Next time you write an ad, a letter, an email, a brochure or whatever’s next on your list, start it off, ‘Dear Auntie’ and see how that changes the way you’d write.