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Knowing Your Customers
Every business is faced with the inevitable task of building a sufficient customer base to sustain long term profit growth. Whether that customer is the result of a well researched and objectively documented business plan or an intuitive guess that sprang from two wildly, distinctive abstract connections, it is imperative to know ‘who is that niche customer that will sustain the business through its start up and growth phases?

The advent of technology, fashion, lifestyle and diverse spending patterns has contributed to segmenting what was once known as the ‘Mass Customer Market’. In its wake, customer characteristics have transformed the market place into a buffet of cosmetic colors, tekkie toys and form fitting fashions that stretch the most creative business owner to higher levels of consumer frenzy. It is not enough to build a business on a niche market, but to sustain that business on the strength your ability to consistently satisfy niche customer needs.

The recent mergers within the wireless cell phone industry speak specifically to the notion that within the rapidly expanding cell phone market, there is a niche customer with specific cell phones needs. When Cingular and AT&T Wireless merged, it was not a merger of equals as much as it was a merger of convenience. Though the act did create the largest network of wireless cell phone subscribers, it also allowed the new company to address the common needs the two companies shared among customers. Nextel and Sprint, once their merger is finalized, will share a common platform that will address the specific needs of their niche customer. Obviously the one common truth that drives the competitive race among cell phone providers is that cell phone users differ in their needs.
The real challenge is in finding that one unique need within a broad customer range and consistently providing the means for addressing that need.

Building a business around a niche customer entails thinking of your product or service as an essential element of the customer’s life. Customers never really gave much thought to the frequent use of an ironing board until someone figured out how to build one that didn’t squeak whenever it was being unfolded. Satellite radio is carving into that niche group of radio listeners who are bored or annoyed by the standardized play list common to many of their favorite stations. Thousands of Detroit Red Wing fans find themselves searching the cable channels for coverage of semi-pro hockey games in order to satisfy their unique customer needs. In his book, ‘The Customer Driven Company’, author Richard C. Whiteley states that, “Choosing the customer on whom the company will focus is a major opportunity. Doing it well can lay the foundation for success.” He goes on to show how Jan Carlzon completely turned around Scandinavian Airlines during a worldwide recession by recognizing that ‘business travelers’ were the key to its comeback. At that time, those business travelers were seen as the only stable source of revenue on Scandinavian Airlines main routes. Therefore, the airlines had to understand the traveler’s needs immediately, and it had to inspire each employee to measure every action against those needs.

Tina Wohlfield, Human Resources Administrator for USA Credit Union says, “As a service provider, we anticipate our customer needs before they know they need them. We tailor our product and services at the individual level. We don’t push those things that have no interest to our customers, but we do monitor their needs and then offer a service that reflects their individual preferences.”

Sometimes it is hard to imagine that the thousands of people seen walking through the malls on any given Saturday are uniquely different and have specific needs that move them in and out of particular stores. A successful business owner recognizes that customer retention depends largely on how well you can improve upon product or service without losing the one characteristic that made it unique. You can be certain that the Sprint/Nextel merger will combine a number of customer services, but the ‘push-to-talk’ feature will remain intact.


© 2013 Lee E. Meadows
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