When your “ideal customers” blind you


Now onward.


Many marketing experts speak of attracting “your ideal customers.”

Also called “buyer personas” in the inbound marketing jargon, it is considered one of the gold standards in marketing best practices to create a fictitious and hypothetical “ideal customer” profile for your business during the planning stage (and throughout the life of the business).

For most small business owners, it is far less sophisticated: They tend to have a vague idea of “ideal customers,” such as “middle-class homeowners,” or “Millennials,” or “women.”

Regardless of how detailed or sophisticated your preconceived notion of what your “ideal customers” are, your obsession with finding your “ideal customers” can destroy your business.

Often, people start a business with a great degree of fantasy and idealism. They craft their buyer personas usually at this stage, before the rubber meets the road. While buyer personas, when properly used, are powerful tool in focusing your branding and marketing efforts, often they end up becoming a tool of self-sabotage and an excuse for not casting your net farther and wider, beyond your comfort zones.

So Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish [to eat along with your bread]?” They answered, “No.” And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat (starboard) and you will find some.” So they cast [the net], and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great catch of fish. — John 21:5,6 (The Amplified Holy Bible 2015 edition).

You may be familiar with this story from a Sunday School class from your childhood. In this narrative, the disciples of Jesus went back to their day job of being fishermen after his execution a few days ago. These men were in fishery industry for all their lives. Most likely, their fathers were in fishery, too. They knew the water like the back of their hands, they knew the best practice, and they relied on their professional experience to find their catch. But on that day, they were out on their boat all day, did all the “right thing,” but caught no fish. Then Jesus came, telling the guys to cast the net on the “wrong” side of the boat! Was he nuts? What does he know anything about running a fishing boat anyway?

But they did it anyway–after all, what’s there to lose? They ended up with so many fish that they couldn’t haul the net–too heavy!

The lesson here is this: Always be open to unexpected possibilities. 

Running a business comes with moments of serendipity.

You might have created your products or services with certain “ideal customers” in your mind; but more often than you can imagine, unexpected kinds of people respond really well to them.

Letting your “ideal customers” become an excuse not to reach out to them or an excuse to drive them away is what kills your business. 

If you own any kind of public-facing, service-industry business, doing so can even get you into a legal trouble. There are covert investigators working for civil rights enforcement agencies who routinely make calls at businesses that are considered “places of public accommodation” posing as a member of a protected class (race, national origin, sexual orientation, etc.) while another posing as someone else (like, white, straight American). If you treat them any differently, you may be penalized for unlawful discrimination. Even when this does not happen, customers who felt unwelcome or received half-ass service at your place of business because they aren’t your “ideal customers” will go on review sites like Yelp and make your life a hell. Then even your “ideal customers” probably won’t do any business with you.

Here is a rule of business: As a business owner or operator, you are not allowed to pick and choose your customers. Every customer deserves to be treated with dignity and utmost respect, and are entitled to receive the best quality service you can offer.


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