The Non-Customer Is Always Right

not interested

We’ve all heard the saying, the customer is always right.  For most product managers, however, the non-customer is the person you should be listening to.  When you hear the phrase understand your market, the goal isn’t to understand those people who’ve already purchased your product.  The goal is to understand the people who haven’t purchased your product yet.

Retail Customers

Gordon Selfridge is credited with coining the phrase, the customer is always right, about 100 years ago.  [Note: Wikipedia notes that it may not have originated with him.]  Mr. Selfridge made his fame first at Macy’s and then with his own department store.

shoes at retail

There are two good reasons that he was successful, and that his catch phrase has become part of our mass conciousness.  First, the phrase serves as a reminder of the importance of great customer service as an element of customer delight.  Great customer service can be a distinctive competence of your organization – it can be what makes you dominate a market.   Second, and more importantly, in retail, your (previous) customers are not certain to be your (future) customers.  This is especially true with commodity products or markets, like retail and white goods.  The person who bought from you yesterday can just as easily buy from the guy across the street next week.  With an eye to the future, you really should be thinking of him as a non-customer, and should be trying to win his business.

In gambling, there’s a phrase – dice have no memory.  The fact that you threw a seven (a winning throw in craps) 10 seconds ago has no bearing on the possibility that you will throw snake-eyes (a losing throw) 10 seconds from now.  Retail customers are the same, unless you give them a reason to want to make their next purchase from you.

And that’s why the customer is always right works for retailers.  Because the focus on customer service will magically convert “non-customers” into repeat-customers.


If you’re a product manager who champions a product that relies on repeat customers, then you may not get any value from this article.  If you’re a product manager who wants to grow his market – to sell to new customers, then listen up – this one is for you.

New customers are not really customers, yet.  You can call them prospects, leads, or opportunities.  You hope they will become customers.  But right now, they are non-customers.

Non-customers are your market.  And understanding your market means understanding your non-customers.  Find out what their problems are.  And create solutions for your non-customers.  If you do a good enough job, you can call them not-yet-your-customers.  But that’s too many hyphens for me to type.  Non-customers.

How many email servers, data centers, or disaster recovery solutions are you going to sell to one customer?

cookie cutter

Sure, your business model may rely on residuals, maintenance contracts, or license fees, or you may sell a service that involves recurring billing.  Part of your business model, then, is about having sustained customers.  sustained customers are not the same as repeat customers.  You want them to keep using what you already sold them (and keep paying more for it – so it better become more valuable over time!).  But if growth is part of your business model, what you’re really looking for is new-to-you customers.


Tuned In To Your Non-Customers

Maybe I always had this understanding, locked away in my head, just waiting to be set free.  Or maybe the idea jumped out of the pages of Tuned In and rang so true that I can’t remember not hearing the reverberations of the idea.  It is not a new idea – and the authors (Craig Stull, Phil Meyers, and David Meerman Scott) say as much – but it is a refreshingly crisp presentation of the idea.

Tuned In just became the Amazon #1best seller (and more accolades).  You can watch the abc news interview with Phil on the Tuned In blog.  It may be the Da Vinci Code for product managers.  Check out the video for a quick overview from Phil about the ideas in their book.

The Right Time For An Idea

I don’t know if it is serendipity, but the focus on the problems of non-customers is getting a lot of attention in the product management world right now.  It’s the hot new epiphany.

Nick Coster pointed us, last week on brainmates, to a blog post by John Nack, senior product manager at Adobe.  One idea among several from John:

“My job is to talk to people from across the insanely diverse range of those who use Photoshop–and some who don’t, but who we think should–and to figure out the “next next” thing.”

It’s his attention to his non-customers that gets our attention.

Ivan Chalif was digging through back-issues of Fast Company when he came across an article from Nov 2007 about Trek bicycles.  From Ivan’s article:

“They were accustomed to collecting feedback from biking professionals, but when they solicited requirements from people who weren’t bikers, they ended up designing a bike which appealed to a completely different rider.”

Again with the non-customers.


And there are a bunch of examples in Tuned In too – from Zip Car to iPods and more.  I really think the guys are onto something here…

5 thoughts on “The Non-Customer Is Always Right

  1. Hey Scott,

    Ha! “the Da Vinci Code for product managers” – I love it.

    Thanks for taking the time to review Tuned In. We appreciate it. You’ve chosen to focus on an aspect of the book that is so misunderstood by so many people. Non-customers are critical, yet so few companies talk with them.

    Talking to people who have a portable music device already generates a crappy, feature-laden MP3 player. Talking to people who listen to music but who do not yet have a portable music device yields the iPod.

    Cheers, David

  2. Thanks David, and congrats on the book! Phil’s interview on ABC was really good – maybe you’ll get the next one (or do y’all rock-paper-scissors for the interviews?).

    The Nintendo Wii is another great example – wish I had remembered it last night. They made a concerted effort to create a gaming system for “non gamers” and still managed to get good PR within the gaming-press, getting them the exposure they needed.

  3. Scott, it is always fun to choose which one of us does an interview. We all have strengths, so if the interview is a focus on a particulatr subject, that’s easy.

    For the general ones, (and when it requires in-person like TV) it comes down to who can travel at that time.

    All good though.


  4. You highlight a key point for commercially available products – knowing who the target customer is, not just who the current customer is. This is where usability analysts can step in and thoroughly research the needs of potential users, getting into their homes and workplaces with contextual inquiry and interviews to learn what makes them tick and what their biggest frustrations are. It’s also a great way to learn what already works because that will help inspire product improvements.

  5. Samantha, thanks very much and welcome to Tyner Blain!

    One of the things I love about usability analysis, and UX in general, is that we can identify (relevant) good ideas in other tools, solutions, and environments and apply them to our products. Incorporation of “what works”, affordances, and mental models that users have (drifting into IA :)) can really create a visceral experience that distinguishes a product.

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