How Individual Customers Can Transform Your Business


Simply stated, the point is that one does not have to be like certain people in order to understand them, but he does have to understand them in certain respects in order to rally them.

—George A. Kelly, A Theory of Personality1


For a long time, segmentation worked okay. It was easy. It was good enough. And, the competition wasn’t doing anything better.

Focusing on what’s easy is understandable, because, well, it’s easy. It’s the reason organizations are captivated by the idea of a mythical, single, tell-all metric like the Net Promoter Score (NPS).2 And, it’s the reason many businesses continue to quote the NPS like gospel despite obvious flaws in the initial design—it only verified past behavior but was presented as an indicator of future behavior—and a growing mound of evidence against its unique efficacy.3,4,5 It’s easy and everyone else is doing it.

But, organizations, realizing the shortcomings of segmentation in the current business environment, are now being forced to find new strategies to sell their product. It’s forcing them to do what they always should have done: focus on the customer as a human. As Stanley Marcus, former CEO of Neiman Marcus, once quipped, “Customers are people; consumers are statistics.”6

The problem of segmentation isn’t the idea behind it—grouping customers into manageable sets—but the way it is executed: segmentation strategies don’t reflect anything in the real world; they are artificial categories created by organizations for organizations. Most importantly, they don’t reflect anything in customers’—the real people’s—reality: customers don’t see themselves or the brand—the customer-perceived manifestation of the organization—in anything close to that way. Segmentation is only a convenient shortcut to an end goal when the competition isn’t doing any better.

Now, faced with the digitally-empowered customer that is able to exert more power over the marketing-enabled organization than vice versa, businesses are being thrown into new territories where real humans actually exist. This is forcing organizations to adopt individualized strategies. According to a 2015 IBM CxO study, “More than two-thirds [71%, up from 55% in 2013] of all CEOs anticipate adopting a more individualized approach to customers. […] That entails acquiring a much better understanding of their customers, since it’s impossible to personalize products, services or experiences without a clear idea of customers’ core values and what’s happening in their lives.”7 And, this focus translates directly into performance: in the 2013 version IBM’s study, outperforming organizations—those organizations that have a strong reputation for innovation and exceed their competitors with respect to revenue growth and profitability—were “24 percent more likely […] to have given their customer a prime seat at the boardroom table” and “54 percent more likely […] to collaborate extensively with their customers” than underperforming organizations.8

This individualized approach to customers will pervade organizations throughout the entire C-suite and eventually trickle down through the organization all the way to front-line employees who will be empowered to make customer-centric decisions in the organizations of the future.9,10,11

What this means is that at some point you’ll have to make decisions based on reports of individualized customer data or be tasked with constructing the reports themselves.

One of the most powerful tools for capturing real people is the customer interview and we believe the one-on-one interview is the most powerful version of this tool. But, it’s also the easiest one to misuse.

Although you likely won’t be conducting the interviews yourselves, you will be tasked with observing interviews, interpreting interviews, or utilizing data from customer interviews.

So, we thought it would be valuable to give some advice on how one-on-one interviews should be conducted to maximize efficacy based on what we’ve learned over the past decade.

Not All Consultants Are Created Equal

Before I take on any project, I remind myself of a story where the acting teacher and theorist Sanford Meisner kicked a student out of his class. He didn’t kick the student out for bad behavior or because he was a bad student. He kicked him out because he didn’t think he was the right teacher for that student.12

Not every consultant is right for every company. Insights and solutions are only as good as an organization’s ability to implement them. It’s rare to find a consultant that will turn down business because of a bad fit, so the burden falls on the organization to be proactive about making sure the consultant is a good fit.

This can come down to something as simple as where you stand on notes being taken during the interviews: I’ve seen consultancies that insist taking notes during the interview is essential to their process. But, I believe it makes the customer feel like you’re evaluating them and hinders the necessary relationship between the interviewer and interviewee. So, I take all my notes while watching recordings after the session. It’s more work but, in my view, it produces more effective results.

Or, it can be as complex as whether the theoretical frameworks are something that your organization is ready to incorporate: Anyone that works with The Cult Branding Company should be ready to incorporate archetypes into their businesses.

Not All Customers Are Created Equal

Just like all consultants aren’t created equal for your company, not all customers are created equal for one-on-one interviews if you want deep insights about your brand. We only interview people that are an organization’s  best customers and most passionate fans—their Brand Lovers—for a simple reason: If you want to learn about somebody, would you talk to 100 people who met them once or would you talk to their best friends?

On top of this attitudinal aspect, you also want people that are able to articulate themselves well. This is a skill that is independent of how much a person loves the brand; but, the love is a prerequisite for articulate expression (i.e., someone who loves a brand may not articulate themselves well but if someone doesn’t love a brand they won’t have enough valuable things to say about the brand).

We find articulate Brand Lovers through large surveys: For finding Brand Lovers, we use a series of attitudinal questions that correlate with purchasing and intensity of brand devotion. For finding articulate Brand Lovers, we use a series of open-ended questions that cover multiple dimensions of the brand. Through these quantitative and qualitative measures, we find a group of Brand Lovers that present a diverse and multidimensional view of the brand that covers the wide range of opinions and attitudes expressed by the whole survey sample.

We believe these individuals are so vital to understanding the brand that my travel schedule for each project usually involves several weeks on the road, interviewing a single person in each destination.

Insights and solutions are only as good as the data collected. Interviewing these Brand Lovers helps get to the heart of your brand and the hearts of your customers.


And he [Carl Jung] pretended, or told it in a way, as if she really had been on the moon and it had happened. And I was very rationalistically trained from school so I said indignantly, “But she imagined to be on the moon, or she dreamt it, but she wasn’t on the moon.” And he looked at me earnestly and said, “Yes she was on the moon.”

—Marie-Louise von Franz, Matter of Heart13


Customers that have a strong love of brands are likely to be hard to understand. They likely love the brand more than you do even though it’s what provides your paycheck! It’s easy to find them weird: some decorate their houses with your merchandise, some travel thousands of miles to participate in your events, some gather online or in person with like-minded individuals to live your brand’s lifestyle, and some even tattoo themselves with your logo.

But, the goal isn’t to understand them on your terms; it’s to understand them on their terms.

To do this we adopt an attitude of a beginner’s mind—the Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin. This mindset is nonjudgemental and attempts to understand everything as if it were new. From this starting point, through the interviews, we slowly begin to learn the language of the Brand Lovers without using any preconceived ideas of what we believe the brand to be or trying to place our own way of thinking onto theirs. As Jung did with his patient, we go and live on the moon with each Brand Lover for a little while and learn what their moon is about.

Not summarizing or interpreting too early in the processes is critical. I can’t emphasize that enough. I’ve seen too many interviewers start interpreting early in a series of interviews and have watched it skew all future interviews: they end up guiding the interviews to provide more and more support for the notions they already developed rather than taking each interview on its own terms and exploring other potential dimensions of the brand.

Each interview should start from scratch in an attempt to understand each customer on their own terms. It is only after the interviews that an interpretive framework—in our case that would include things like archetypes and cultural stories—should be applied in order to understand the common themes and common ways the Brand Lovers talk about and relate to the brand—what might be called uncovering the language of the brand. These commonalities get to the heart of the brand.


We are all doing the exact same thing: No matter what your business is, your product would not exist if it did not solve problems for people, if it didn’t make people’s lives easier, more enriched and better. And it’s got to work. It’s those two things: It has got to be necessary and it has got to work.

—Danny Meyer14


Ultimately, the goal of interviewing these Brand Lovers is to translate their insights into creating meaning for all of your customers. In doing so, your organization becomes about more than increasing the bottom line. It becomes about solving very real tensions in real people’s lives.


  1.  A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs, George A. Kelly, 1955
  2. The One Number You Need to Grow,” Harvard Business Review, Frederick F. Reichheld, 2003.
  3. Net Promoter Score (NPS) Does Not Predict Growth—it’s fake science,” Marketing Science: Commentary by Professor Byron Sharp, Byron Sharp, 2008.
  4.  “A Longitudinal Examination of Net Promoter and Firm Revenue Growth,” Journal of Marketing, Timothy L. Kennington, Bruce Cooil, Tor Wallin Andreassen, Lerzan Aksoy, 2007.
  5. The predictive ability of different customer feedback metrics for retention,” International Journal of Research in Marketing, Evert de Haan, Peter C. Verhoel, Thorston Wiesel, 2015.
  6.  Quest for the Best, Stanley Marcus, 1979.
  7.  “Redefining Competition: Insights from the Global C-suite Study,” IBM Institute for Business Values, 2015.
  8. The Customer-activated Enterprise: Insights from the Global C-suite Study,” IBM Institute for Business Value, 2013.
  9.  “Redefining Markets: Insights from the Global C-Suite Study — The CMO Perspective,” IBM Institute for Business Value, 2015.
  10. Redefining Boundaries: Insights from the Global C-Suite Study,” IBM Institute for Business Value, 2015.
  11.  Organize for Complexity, Neils Pflaeging, 2014.
  12.  Sanford Meisner on Acting, Sanford Meisner, Dennis Longwell, 1987.
  13.  Matter of Heart: The extraordinary journey of C.G. Jung into the soul of man, directed by Mark Whitney, 1983.
  14.  “Five Lessons From Customer-Obsessed CEOs,” George Colony’s Blog: The Counterintuitive CEO, George Colony, 2015.
Previous Post Next Post