Finding Customer Patterns in Data

Find your ideal customer through systems thinking

This month’s guest blogger is David C. Baker, Author of The Business of Expertise. His take on systems thinking applies to any expert or marketing leader who wants to serve the most profitable and enjoyable customers. Follow David at month’s guest blogger is David C. Baker, Author of The Business of Expertise. His take on systems thinking applies to any expert or marketing leader who wants to serve the most profitable and enjoyable customers. Follow David at

One of the things that most surprises me in the work of experts is how little attention they pay to pattern matching. This inevitably comes for an understandable reason, too, and that’s this: they are hyper-focused on solving this client’s problem. And what would be wrong with that, you ask?

Well, a lot. It’s not like this particular client is getting ripped off, but they are not benefiting from the rapt attention all experts have in noticing patterns in data. Subsconsciously they are applying what they learned last week—and the week before—to solving this particular issue, but they aren’t building reliable, repeatable ways of using “systems thinking” to their work.

If they were, they’d step back and say. “Wow. We’re going to slow down just a little and imagine that a lot of our prospects and clients have the same issue, and we’re going to solve this by noticing the similarities in the symptoms…and therefore the solutions…to what this means.

I’ll give you an example. At one point in my consulting practice I noticed that some of my clients were more introspective than others, and I naturally wondered why that was the case. After fiddling around with it for five weeks or so I noticed a pattern: anyone who was up against a facility lease boundary got introspective. Why? Because they were at the point where they would have to sign another five- or ten-year lease. Why? Because, as I discovered, that was the only long-term commitment they were making to their business. Every other decision (employees, clients, furniture, etc.) would be unwound, but signing on the dotted line, often with a personal guarantee, prompted some deeper thinking.

Let’s be even more practical and illustrate how you might do this for yourself. It’s best thought of as “Surfacing and Monetizing Your IP” because that’s what patterns provide: a shortcut to solutions, and a more reliable one at that.

Suppose that you are a consulting firm that works with one of the five thousand private colleges and universities in North America. But instead of rolling up your sleeves and solving each problem from scratch, you decide to step back and see if there are patterns in this data. If I were going to lead this exercise for you, we’d all get in comfortable clothes, get some cold adult beverages, and descend on a conference room with all sorts of wall surface area where we could brainstorm in writing.

Then across the top of the longest wall, we’d think of as many categories as we could, staring a new column for each, from left to right. I’ll make some up, here, to illustrate: number of students, graduation rate, student:teacher ratio, average student indebtedness, percentage of “room and board” students, acceptance rate, parents involvement in later capital campaigns, average distance from home, and so on. You need at least eighty of these vertical columns.

Next, you’d score the clients you’ve worked with in each of these categories, to whatever extent you had the data. Then you’d go home.

The next morning you’d walk in and from a distance see what patterns you see. That’s not science, yet, but rather just a license to learn. You’d dig deeper where the patterns seemed to warrant it.

And then you’d build a model to test with clients.

And you’d get smarter and smarter because you’re looking at data differently than your competitors!

copyright 2019, David Baker, all rights reserved

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