The secret lives of customers

Last night I heard a story.

The zoologists at the Melbourne Zoo thought they knew their animals pretty well, but wanted to check out what they were doing at night, so they started videoing what went on. What they discovered surprised and amazed them.

There was a kind of clash of civilizations between the native fauna – brushtail possums  – and the imported Zoo tenants.

When a possum trotted across the elephants quarters, the elephants would stamp on the unsuspecting possum crushing them into a mess of blood and gore. Unsurprisingly Possums don’t know much about elephants and elephants must get grumpy when a possum tries to teal their food.

The orangutans would stay very still and watch possums creep through their enclosure and then snatch the possum up and tear it into bits. Imagine if an ordinary zoo visitor expecting a photographic confrontation with a wild/cute primate saw an orangutan rip a brushtail possum into shreds. They would be terrified.

The primates at the Zoo also have iPads with games and activities. iPads! I guess it keeps them occupied and their minds engaged. The zoo patrons don’t ever see a chimp playing angry birds on an iPad. It wouldn’t fit with the Zoo’s promotion of a unique experience for the whole family. Also, if I am honest you can see primates using iPads on public transport on any working day, Monday to Friday.

The story of discovering a secret life of animals reminded me of the gulf between assumptions and knowledge.

We know so much these days about our customers – our audience. We know what they buy, what they don’t buy, how often they buy it, and what they are prepared to pay for it. With technology we can also drill-down into likes/dislikes, location, friends, fashion, marital status, number of children, education, hobbies, almost anything.

But most organisations approach their customers like the zoo-keepers. They know the species, the expected behaviour, diet, normal sleep patterns, what the norm is. But as the zoo-keepers discovered, there is no normal. Customers are people and people are anything but normal.

All it took for the zoo-keepers to have their assumptions blown away was some observation and interaction.

Truly knowing your customers means leaving yourself open to be surprised, to accepting that the old rules don’t count, and there are new rules where the future off an organisation depends on a micro-understanding-relationship-interaction of and with their customers – other humans.  This means more social media, more blogs, more online tools, more apps, more intimacy.