Synchronized swimmers

[published in the  April 2013 CCCC KidsBiz Newsletter]

Is your business in sync with your customers’ values?

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve already seen this quote, “The customer doesn’t care.” I wish I could take credit for having uttered this phrase but alas it was actually Gary Wassner of the factoring firm Hilldun who made this proclamation at an event I attended recently. Out of all the insightful things he said, this was the one that really jumped out at me because it’s true: The customer really doesn’t care.

Now, at first read that sentence might sound cynical. It’s not. It’s actually an essential little mantra to carry with you as you design your next collection or shop your next trade show. What he meant was customers only care about what they care about. Ok, now that I’ve explained it, his statement might not sound cynical but simplistic. But as obvious as it should be, all too often we forget to start with what consumers want and actually value.

When talking to would-be entrepreneurs, it’s often my job to explain to them that the very things they’re most excited about and view as huge differentiators won’t actually connect with the market they’re targeting. And it’s not just newbies who fall into this trap. Many existing companies and stores are wasting time, money or energy on products or strategies that only they find fascinating and necessary. For instance, taking the time to set up a charitable tie-in to your business might be personally fulfilling but unless you’ve identified and keyed into like-minded shoppers, don’t expect your philanthropy to pay off in sales. Cause marketing works when it aligns with your fans’ own ethics otherwise shoppers will turn a blind eye. Similarly, you might pour all your time into shopping the market for the most eco-friendly, sustainable lines in the biz but the average consumer isn’t going to pay more for your conscious collections. Expect slow sales unless your area is overrun with moms who share your ideals.

Gary’s example was labels that invest in the finest fabrics because they have a personal penchant for textiles when their customer may not even know the difference between rayon and silk. So the designer ends up with a collection that’s overpriced in the consumer eye. The lesson? Determine what your customer wants and will appreciate, and spend your time and money in those areas and push everything else to the back burner.

Just one day after hearing Gary talk about focusing on what customers value and jettisoning the rest, I found myself in a meeting discussing the third iteration of a project I’ve consulted on. After a bit of brainstorming on how to take the concept to the next level, someone new to the group asked, Have you asked [our potential partners] what they need? The answer: awkward silence. We were all guilty of becoming wedded to ideas that we thought were great but weren’t really solving problems for our partners and therefore had little value.

This topic has been a main focus of my fashion business class this semester. For my students, who have each developed amazing senior thesis collections, I’ve been hammering home the fact that they need to have a point of view and a clearly defined customer base. To that end, we’ve been working on determining which shoppers will “get” what they’re doing and will respond to their style, quality and ethics. I’ve been encouraging the students to understand that stores and customers will only pay for what they value. Beyond that, truth is, no matter how amazing your product or marketing strategy is, if it doesn’t speak to them, customers just don’t care. —CC