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Are your customers a puzzle? Or a mystery?

No. I’m not getting all epistemological on you. Fascinating though philosophy is, I’m much too pragmatic and you’re much too busy for that discussion right now. We’ll save that for beers at our next conference, OK?

No, in this case, I’m talking about what makes us think we know our customers and their desires as much as we do. I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures. It’s a quick read, mainly reprinting articles Gladwell has written for the New Yorker over the years. And in it, a common question keeps emerging: do we know when we’re dealing with puzzles or mysteries?

What’s the difference? In this article from 2007, Gladwell illustrates:

“The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.”

Our customers aren’t puzzles. They’re usually mysteries. Sure, figuring out the keywords they’re using is a puzzle. So is trying to determine what they want to buy. But figuring out the individual is a mystery. Why are they buying? What matters most to them? That’s especially tough to know because it might vary every time you see them. Continuing to ask separates the amateurs from the pros.

But what about analytics and metrics? Don’t they help?

Sure. Some, anyways. So do tools like and social media monitoring. But they’re necessarily incomplete. Much like the images of mammograms and military intelligence, as Gladwell notes:

“…while a picture is a good start, if you really want to know what you’re looking at you probably need more than a picture.”

It’s not enough to have a good picture. You need to explore the mystery that is your customer from all sides. Analyze what you know. Question what it means. Check your assumptions (hell, check ’em at the door). If you’re spending all your time and money on tools and not pairing that time and money with some seriously Sherlock Holmes-ian analysis, you’re probably wasting your money.

Have you solved the mystery of your customer? Or are you still looking for pieces to the puzzle? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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