Are Your Customers Like Berliners?

Berliners showed me that, just when I thought I had them figured out, I hadn't. Customers should be treated with the same care.

Soon after the Soviet Union erected the Berlin Wall, President Kennedy uttered the now-famous words, "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner). Initially, this was a statement aimed at the Russians that was intended to show Western resolve. Over the years, however, it has become adopted by Berliners as a statement of individuality and freedom of expression. During a recent holiday in Berlin, I was reminded of this famous speech by the many historical sites I visited and the people I met. Berlin feels like a city of contradictions. Hard to categorize, it feels like an individual who refuses to be neatly pigeon-holed. Is that true for your customers, too? We have an armory of customer insight tools at our disposal these days (from various segmentation approaches, to predictive analytics delivering real-time personalized marketing content). It's, perhaps, too tempting to focus on what is possible, rather than what your customers actually value. How often do you find yourself thinking about your customers in terms of stable segments or predictable behaviors your models can "understand"? In Berlin, immersing yourself in the smorgasbord of sites, entertainment, food, drink and sheer variety of people is a great tonic for that simplification. It can also help dispel a number of misconceptions that Brits like me still have about our Anglo-Saxon cousins. Here are a few apparent contradictions that struck me:
  • You can be fined for crossing the road before the "green man" is illuminated, and most people obey this rule. That plays right into my assumption that Germans are rigid rule followers, almost control freaks. But then, as you walk around Berlin, you find a widespread acceptance of graffiti everywhere. At first, it can seem scruffy and run-down, but it seems that people value this freedom of expression, this individuality.
  • Berlin has many historical sites, beautiful museums and art galleries. Indeed, much of the information from the tourist office would lead you to expect that this classic, historical city is full of affluent middle-aged Germans and other tourists appreciating the many forms of culture the city has to offer. But, in my experience, 80% of those traveling in Berlin appear to be under 30. This is a youthful and vibrant city, with more nightlife and social venues than you could fit in your itinerary.
  • The British are famous (perhaps infamous) for believing the Germans have no sense of humor. Much of the comedy I grew up watching, including Dad's Army, plays into such stereotypes. However, anyone attending a cabaret show called "The Wyld" will find an entertaining and hysterical cocktail of comedy, dance, circus acts and risqué performances that suits all orientations.
  • Like us Brits, the Germans are not renowned for their cuisine. People could easily assume all people in Berlin eat is currywurst (which is tastier than I expected) and beer. But this most cosmopolitan of cities has quality cuisine from all over the world. I, personally, enjoyed the food at a Jamaican-European fusion restaurant that was better than any I've visited in the U.K.
So, what's my point for customer insight leaders (apart from recommending a vacation in Berlin if you haven't been)? I want to remind you to remember that your customers are individuals whose lives will be filled with apparent contradictions. Don't be surprised and discount research or analysis that appears to contradict what you think you already know about your customers. Rather, I'd encourage being open to insights about contradictory and changing customer wants and needs. How do you respond to this challenge? Have you managed to stay focused on the jobs your customers want to get done—without assuming you fully understand them? Have you embedded a test-and-learn norm in your marketing that keeps your approach fresh and flexible? Please do share your tips and tricks for avoiding stereotypes as well as any insight musings you have had from your holiday. I'd love to hear them.

Paul Laughlin

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Paul Laughlin

Paul Laughlin is the founder of Laughlin Consultancy, which helps companies generate sustainable value from their customer insight. This includes growing their bottom line, improving customer retention and demonstrating to regulators that they treat customers fairly.


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