“Target your ideal customer, and you’re more likely to succeed.” So say many marketing experts. But is that really good advice? Should you only seek to acquire the perfect buyer? And what would that mysterious creature look like anyway? Let’s talk about the myth of the ideal customer.
In theory, it makes sense. You need to have a target audience in mind or your lack of focus will result in poor sales and unenviable revenues. And, a customer with easy-to-solve problems and a Walt Disney-like enthusiasm about working with you sounds like a great idea.
The problem is that too many people target customers based on superficial metrics. We tend to say thinks like, “Our ideal customer persona is an individual or company with a lot of expendable income, who will recommend us to others, and is not easily upset or disappointed.”
In other words, we want to have minimal troubles for maximum revenues. Who wouldn’t jump at such an opportunity? This, however, is more like a get-rich-quick scheme than a realistic formula for success.
Real ventures require diligence, experimentation, occasional failure, disaster recovery, team building, social graces and communications savvy. In short, hard work on repeat, day in and day out. Companies must adapt and reinvent themselves, and not only during the startup phase.
Don’t Target Your Ideal Customer—Target Your Ideal Challenge
A better phrase might be to target your ideal challenge. Your company has strengths and weaknesses that are compatible with a host of industry problems. Discovering which problems you can solve is part of the process of discovering the customers you can serve.
What do you do if the problems you solve are connected to difficult or demanding customers? As in every question related to your business model, you need to be sure the numbers make good financial sense. However, in many cases you will discover that there is much revenue to be gained by solving problems for demanding—even difficult—customers. And the reward is in the challenge.
Businesses Targeting Sub-Optimal Customers
Arguably, some of the most radically innovative companies over the past decade or more have targeted ideal challenges, irrespective of the ideality of the customer. Just as often, those companies have had extremely difficult customers but have served them so much better than other companies that they gained massive market share over time—over a period of prolonged hard work, problem-solving, and stellar customer service.
Examples of Innovative Firms with Sub-“Optimal” Customers
|Company||Challenge||Sub-“Optimal” Customer||What Happened|
|Amazon (AMZN)||Initially, to establish itself as the go-to online book retailer; eventually as the predominant online retailer bar none||Initially, an erudite group of readers, eager to search for and acquire books more easily; eventually the average consumer—discontent, cynical, hard-to-please||Amazon targeted challenging customer segments and delivered greater satisfaction than incumbent retailers could. And it turns out those challenging customers rave when satisfied and multiply|
|Netflix (NFLX)||Take on big box video rental companies with an entirely new model||Individuals spending under $10/monthly with high expectations of audio/visual quality||Netflix began to beat big Blockbuster et al. before its Internet features took off (remember DVDs by mail?). It was the new subscription business model and relaxed policies that ultimately won the day|
|PayPal (PYPL)||Work within (and around) the financial services sector to create a new way to transfer money, with or without incumbent banks||Individuals transacting small amounts of money and banks with old ways of doing things||PayPal made the offline equivalent of handing cash to a friend an online reality. It took a piece of the pie and the banks had to participate|
|Tesla (TSLA)||Create and market the world’s first minimum viable product (MVP) electric car for mass distribution||Educated, environmentally conscious consumers, futurists, and high-tech users||Tesla was arguably first to a true MVP. The company created its own market, selling direct to customers to keep costs down, iterating with each model, ultimately launching the affordable Model 3|
|Wired (parent: Condé Nast)||Serve a new, burgeoning audience largely unreached by old world publishers||Futurist thinkers and dreamers with vociferous appetites for geek-level content and global news||Wired was the most popular offline and online content in its category among the small but growing segment of “techies.” Today, tech consumers are more rapidly expanding than ever and Wired is among the more significant publishers to have helped to fuel that drive|
As you tweak (or destroy) your own business model, consider these examples and add your own to the mix. You can easily see that the most exciting stories in entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership have been in industries with very, very difficult customers.
Give An Old Idea the Boot
So forget about targeting your “ideal customer”. Target instead your ideal challenge. What problems are your teams most suited to tackling, regardless of customer difficulty?
It’s not that you should ignore opportunities to serve customers who are easier to please. But remember the adage “no pain, no gain.” Apply that to customer acquisition and satisfaction also.
Sometimes the greatest gains come through higher risk endeavors. Don’t pursue risk for risk’s sake. Rather pursue those projects and opportunities that you are well suited to tackle, and find ways to mitigate the risks posed by challenging customer segments.
Plan, architect solutions that change the game, and deliver on your promises.