What Customers REALLY Want (It’s Not Your Product)

Are you old enough to remember when E.T. came out?

It was 1982. I was on my first trip to New York City. If that wasn’t exciting enough, I had just been named a buyer for a department store (the youngest buyer in its 100-year history), and this was my first buying trip — a trip packed with whirlwind meetings, fashion shows, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (without opening my wallet) and fancy NYC restaurants.

But it was a random moment on an escalator in Macy’s Department Store that would spark my passion for igniting movements and creating experiences for others — passions that shape my career to this day.

As I rode down the escalator, I saw a display from the movie E.T. showing Elliott on his bike, flying through the air with E.T. in his basket. It was magical. I started to imagine what it would be like to create that for real at our store. We could set up a stage to reenact that scene and let children take Elliott’s place in the reenactment. They could jump on on a replica of Elliot’s bike and get their picture taken with E.T. in the basket, wearing Elliott’s signature hoodie (well before Zuckerberg) and feeling as if they were flying through the air courtesy of a midnight sky backdrop.

I knew I wanted to bring that magical experience home to my community, my customers and their children, and when I got home from my trip, I set to work immediately to make it happen.

Bringing the Magic to Life

As you might suspect, I didn’t get a “yes” on my first call to Universal to get permission to host the reenactment (Steven Spielberg himself had to approve my idea), but I did get final approval after many weeks of persistent calls. I also got our local paper and two local TV stations to cover the event.

On launch day, I was almost afraid to get out of bed, worrying no one would show up. But when I got to the store, kids were lined up with their parents around the building. It was heartwarming to see how much the kids enjoyed the chance to experience (even through make-believe) what it would be like to help E.T. get home.

Suddenly, E.T. the movie had become a part of their lives, and an experience they would remember fondly for years to come.

Technically, I was in charge of the sales for several departments. Yet I wasn’t focused on customers buying the E.T. stuffed toys, figurines, backpacks and other licensed products we were selling during the promotion. We had thousands of customers walk through the store during the month-long event, but the focus of the event wasn’t to persuade customers to buy E.T. products. My goal was to create an environment where our customers and their children could have a unique experience. We did build a small house packed with all things E.T for families to pick up something, if they were so inclined — a piece of the magic to take home with them. And many did purchase an item, without us “selling” them. It ended up being one of the strongest Decembers we had ever had.

The products we offered were ancillary. What we achieved that December in 1982 was far more important than moving E.T. toys or meeting our holiday projections. We — a department store — had created an event where families could create memories, and touch, if only for a few minutes, some of the E.T. magic. It was an experience I’ve never forgotten.

What Customers REALLY Want

In today’s shared value and connection economy, creating experiences and making connections is a requirement, not an exception. Your products are secondary to that connection and that experience. They are simply a tool or resource, not the centerpiece.

This may be hard for you to hear as a businessperson. You can spend hundreds, thousands or even millions of dollars and years of work bringing a product to market, but guess what? Customers don’t really care about your product. (Unless you’re Apple and your products have earned a fanboy obsession). There’s a sea of choices and millions of iterative products and services available to us today, so we don’t care all that much about another “latest and greatest” product that’s only slightly better than something we already own or use.

What do we care about?

We care about finding solutions for challenges we have in our lives, as well as larger problems in the world.

We care about real connections — connecting with others who share a passion of ours and connecting to something bigger than ourselves.

We care about finding meaning in our lives. We care about achieving our goals. We care about our children’s dreams and aspirations.

The question you need to answer to make me get excited about your product is: How does your product or service solve one of my problems or struggles? How does it make me feel connected and like I belong to something bigger that myself? How does it help me change my world?

Don’t tell me how your product is better. Tell me how you can help me make my life better. Provide your version of a magical bike ride, and I won’t forget the experience — or you.

Image source: Michael Heilemann