What Do Customers Want? Insights from IKEA's Founder and Beetle Bailey's Creator

Regular readers of this column know that I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes people tick.

That’s because I learned long ago that the secret to appealing to customers, stakeholders, audience members and anyone you care about is to understand who they are and what they want.

And that’s why I carefully read the obituaries of two men who exemplified this philosophy: Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, and Mort Walker, the creator of “Beetle Bailey,” a comic strip about a lazy Army private. (Both men died this week.)

Wait–what could these two possibly have in common?

Well, start with the fact that each man was extremely successful in his field. When Kamprad was 17, he launched the store that, over the next seven decades, became the world’s largest seller of furniture (with 400 stores and $42 billion in revenue). And Walker created the comic strip that would ultimately be syndicated in 1,800 newspapers around the world; he had the longest tenure of any cartoonist on an original creation.

Although they were in very different realms, here’s what united Kamprad and Walker: their deep connection to their customers.

For example, in a Forbes interview in 2000, Kamprad summed up his approach this way: “I see my task as serving the majority of people. The question is, how do you find out what they want, how best to serve them? My answer is to stay close to ordinary people, because at heart I am one of them.”

And, as Richard Goldstein wrote in Walker’s New York Times obituary, “‘Beetle Bailey’ used the Army as its setting, but its popularity derived from everyday life and the universal battles against authority figures and mindless bureaucracy.”

When the Defense Department congratulated Mr. Walker on his 80th birthday, he said: “Human frailty is what humor is all about. People like to see the foibles of mankind. And they relate to the little guy, the one on the bottom.”

For both Kamprad and Walker, their understanding of customers–readers or shoppers–wasn’t theoretical or informed only  by data; it was based on personal experience.

Walker spent a stint in the Army, and he stayed in touch with servicemen throughout his life. And although Kamprad became very, very rich, he regularly flew economy and popped into his stores unannounced to replicate the customer experience.

These men knew that in order to break through today’s noise and nonsense, you have to not only know your customers; you have to love them.

As I’ve written, your love has to be real–not manufactured or manipulative–and unconditional. You have to clearly see your customers’ faults, but love them anyway. Your love has to be unwavering, despite inattention, inconstancy and even infidelity.

Only by truly loving your customers can you deliver in a way that’s truly about them, not about you. The leap to loving brings you in touch with what matters to people. Suddenly you’re able to communicate in ways that profoundly connect. You’re not on the other side of the chasm from your customers: You’re right there next to them, talking softly, saying what they’ve always wanted to hear. As a result, you can give customers what they actually want.

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