This is hard for me to post, because it—well, the headline, at least—seems so negative. Still, I’ve been dealing with a number of startups lately, and it seems like we all need a refresher reminder:

“I don’t know the secret to success, but I do know that the secret to failure is trying to please everybody.”

I watched John Jantsch’s Duct Tape Marketing workshop last week at the annual Small Business Development Center (SBDC) conference in Chicago [disclosure: Palo Alto Software publishes a Duct Tape Marketing-powered Marketing Plan Pro]. Much of what he does reminds me, brilliantly, of how important it is to understand . . .

  1. Who is your target customer. In detail. Not just generalities and demographics, not even just psychographics, but who is this person, what drives her, what does she really want from you, what does she like to read, eat, watch? Where does he live, and with whom? What does he drive?
  2. Who isn’t your customer. John had a great post on Duct Tape Marketing a couple of months ago, saying what to do in a recession is to focus down and more narrowly. This came up again in his workshop. Sometimes the secret to success is who isn’t your customer.

I was in a panel presentation not long ago alongside an expert in customer service. At one point, after she’d dizzied us with stories of Nordstrom retail clerks changing customers’ tires and taking as returns products that Nordstrom had never carried, somebody asked, with just a hint of exasperation,

“But how does a company stay in business like that? How do they make money? Who pays for all that?”

At which point, after a beautifully timed pause, the expert said:

“Yes, that is the question, isn’t it . . . and pay attention, because this is the most important thing I’ll say all night . . . you have to understand that not everybody is a customer.”

Which, at that moment, made everything else she’d said make sense.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.