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Try on your customers' shoes for size

Itís something every manager should do - put yourself in your customersí shoes to see how your product appeals. After all, understanding customers and their needs should be the foundation of marketing. But many products fail because the people promoting them lack a basic knowledge of their target market.

Advertising can compound the effect. What appeals to those behind the publicity can be different to what appeals to intended customers. Think about it.

The key home improvement decision-makers are middle-aged or older (the grey market is particularly important). Women actually take most of the decisions. Yet your adverts, brochures and direct mail are probably designed by an advertising man in his early twenties. It's hard for anyone, but it's harder for a brash 23 year old, who likes clubbing and reads Loaded to really see things through the eyes of a 55-75 year old or know what appeals to women. We like to think we can, and some do it better than others, but it's a big gap to bridge.

We look out on a world that's a lot like us. Who hasn't thought: 'if I like it, others will too'?

One study from the early 1990s shows us how wrong we can be. It asked American executives to estimate the percentage of imported beer sold in US supermarkets, and the percentage of US households that bought canned chilli. The managers' personal preferences and purchasing of imported beer and canned chilli was also noted.

The estimates reflected the executives' own preferences to a surprising degree. Most liked and bought imported beer. The average estimate of imported beer sold was 20%, ten times the actual figure at that time. The managers also estimated that 28% of US households purchased canned chilli in a year, a product they rarely bought. The actual figure was 40 per cent - over a third higher.

And it's not just in America. Readers of the Financial Times were asked similar questions in a follow-up study last year in the UK - with similar results.

It's called the false consensus effect: people think others are more like them than they actually are. Sometimes they are right. Often they are wrong, and their estimates can undershoot or overshoot reality by a long way.

But being aware of the trap is not enough to negate it. Employing people of various ages from a wide range of backgrounds can help - but may not be possible. Market research has been proven to reduce false consensus - real facts can point marketing in the right direction and avoid overconfidence. Remember, 'estimate' is just another word for 'guess'. Your marketing decisions should be based on facts, not gut-feelings and wishful thinking. The objective feedback that good market research provides can help you see through customers' eyes and feel what it's like to stand in their shoes.

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