User segmentation, profiling is dangerous

I’ve learned about Feargal Quinn’s Crowning the Customer through reading Tom Peters blog a few years back.   It’s a classic.  I read it over and over, and each time, I am inspired on different pages.

What I was inspired this time was what Mr. Quinn wrote about “seeing customer as people”.  He encouraged his workers who see thousands of people to make up stories about a particular customer who’s walking by, her lifestyle, how she would use the product once she takes it home.  But  he warns not to segment or profile customers so much to the point that we start to say, they are not our kind of customer.  He says, the real entrepreneur is always spurred on by wish to win every customer.  Let the customer decide what segment you are in, since the market is always changing, and we’ll always only have the approximate idea of what the market is.

Often a design research final report gives clear cut segmentation profile of who are or who should be the target for the company.  I’ve seen corporate managers who almost religiously adopt the result of this report.  Design and marketing department decisions are affected by it.  Maybe this is the result of current education system where students are dealing with abstract ideas rather than experiencing the real situation with real people.  But what is happening here is that real customers are offended by becoming invisible to the companies that adopt this attitude.   An example of this is how one of Japanese mobile phone manufacturer  markets some of their products as for “sliver use”, meaning for old people in Japan.  Silver is symbolic for gray hair.  It is not a bad mobile phone.  It has buttons a bit larger than other mobile phones, and display characters are bigger.  The colors are not bad.  This mobile phone was selected by a company to be used as standard phone for their sales department employees.  When the employees found out that it was “silver usage” phone, they were upset that the company would force them to use the kind of phone that would give them un-cool image to their clients and partners.

Segmentation and profiling may sound good, and with such story it is much easier to convince managers who has not had the experience of actual sales situation with real customers when starting up product development or launching a new project.   It is awfully tempting to create user segmentation and profiling.  But if researchers are to fulfill the role in providing relevant and useful insight to clients,  we must be very careful when to use user segmentation and profiling.

Finding out what happened to the writers of the book, especially years passed after writing, is fun as well as educational.  Feargal Quinn is now an independent member of Seanad Éireann.  He appears to be applying what he learned in business in legislation.

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