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Notes from a small business: Getting to know your customers will pay off

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By Guy Browning

Big companies talk a lot about customers. They say things like “We want to delight the customer” and “We are passionate about the customer” and even “We are obsessed with the customer”. And then they put you on hold for 16 minutes while you wait to speak to somebody in a call centre far, far away.

Small businesses don’t talk about customers; they talk to customers. Often face to face. In the flesh. They shake hands. They ask about the children. They talk about the weather. More often than not, they’ll know their customers’ names, not because they’ve got a powerful database but because they recognise you even when you’ve had a bad haircut. 


Small businesses know that Dave prefers Cumberland sausages to normal pork ones. Dave knows that you know and that’s why he shops with you.  

When you’re in business for yourself, it’s hard to believe that ‘the customer is always right’. You have customers who have trouble tucking their shirt in and they’re supposed to be infallible? No. The truth is that most customers don’t really know what they want. If they did, where were the street demonstrations demanding the introduction of chocolate hobnobs or flatscreen TVs or ready-made fajitas? There weren’t any. 

Customers really only know three things: they know what they like, they know it when they see it, and they know whose money it is. In fact, they don’t actually want to be right. More than anything, they want us to be right. They want us to have the right products at the right time at the right price.


City planners laying out new parks or shopping areas have learned not to link areas by straight paths with right-angled corners. Instead they map out ‘desire paths’. Which way would you naturally choose to get somewhere in the shortest and quickest way? And then they put the paths there. 

Savvy small business owners are the same. They see what their customers desire and make sure they get it. You may have set up as a coffee shop but if most of your customers buy the prints on your walls, you’ll happily convert to an art gallery. 

All businesses have three types of customers. Eighty per cent are normal customers who buy something, say thanks and then go. And then come back on a regular basis. 

Then there are the 10 per cent of difficult customers. They don’t buy, or they don’t pay or they complain about everything that normal customers find perfectly acceptable. What’s most galling about these people is that they keep coming back, even though they’re incredibly unhappy. 


To make up for these time-wasting, energy-draining margin-shrinkers, the universe also provides 10 per cent of really lovely customers. These customers buy regularly, pay on time, sometimes they even pay early. Then they thank you as if you’d done them a personal favour and they even make genuinely helpful suggestions without also demanding 50 per cent of your business.  

When you’re running a business, one of the most beautiful moments is when one of your best customers tells one of your worst all the home truths that you can’t tell them. It’s wonderful, but don’t wait around for it to happen. Just keep smiling and get on with the 80 per cent.

Guy Browning is a writer, film director, after-dinner speaker and author of Never Hit a Jellyfish With a Spade