Understanding your customers and their needs is critical to success as an analyst. What they care about and expect from you should always influence when and what you write and how you package it. I floundered at the start of my analytic career because I didn’t know my customers, let alone understand their needs. I often felt like I was throwing my products over a wall, hoping someone on the other side would find them useful. I also rarely received feedback, which made knowing what customers really wanted that much harder. Thanks to some patient managers and mentors, I learned the importance of knowing my customers and eventually was able to provide more focused, effective analysis.

One way to effectively target and serve your customers is to answer four important questions about them.

What problems do they have?

As policymakers or executives, what are the problems your customers are expected to solve? Whether managing the rise of China or removing malevolent actors from social media platforms, your customers’ problems are what your analysis should be helping them solve. These problems drive what they care about, the questions they want answered, and the analysis they expect and need from you. If your product doesn’t address the right problems, it won’t be relevant, and your customers won’t read it.

Part of understanding your customers’ problems is highlighting challenges they don’t even see coming. Often my Agency analysts identified new trends of which our customers were blissfully unaware. Because we understood their priorities and areas of responsibility, we knew these new problems would fall to them to solve, so we provided a valuable service by raising such issues and putting them into context as soon as possible.

What’s their threshold?

Once you know your customers’ problems, you then need a sense of at what point they would care enough about an issue to want and need your analysis of it. Their threshold must drivewhatyou write about and whenyou seek to inform them. Threshold is about distinguishing between what rates as nice to know versus need to know in their minds. Getting the threshold right is tricky, because it varies by customer and topic. Get the threshold wrong, and you either waste your customer’s time with an unnecessary product or fail to provide them the necessary insights they expect from you.

Some customers are detail-oriented consumers of information, while others take a more strategic view, letting the working level handle all but the biggest issues. For example, one CEO with a background in China might want to know about small developments in Hong Kong’s laws as they relate to dissent, while someone else in the same position might only want to hear about major developments that threaten company policies.

Some topics have low thresholds, while seemingly similar topics might have high ones. For example, I once covered a country that regularly traded artillery rounds with a neighbor across its northwestern border. The threshold for informing policymakers of activity there was much higher than it was for those same countries on the southwestern border, where they almost never exchanged fire, and even a small incident would have been worth noting.

What are their biases?

Do your customers have strong preferences or dislikes that will affect how they receive and evaluate your analysis? This is a common issue if you serve elected officials and political appointees. Such customers often have strong views on people, countries, and issues of which you should be aware. I’m not saying you then avoid these issues, but you need to take an approach and use language when addressing them that won’t trigger your customers to shut down and stop reading. For example, when telling a very negative story about a foreign government whose leaders were friendly with my senior customers, I had to use value-neutral terms in describing their misdeeds so that my customers would read my product rather than reject it for being biased.

Sometimes customers have strong preferences about how they receive information that you must respect if you want them to take your analysis onboard. For example, if a customer prefers discussion to reading dense reports, set up briefings. Some customers even have problems with certain words or phrases. One senior government official I served made it clear he didn’t want foreign terms used in his products, so I purged them all.

Customers can also have biases against organization or units within their own organization—to perhaps include yours—and even against specific analysts. I dealt with plenty of customers who didn’t like the Intelligence Community and have seen private-sector executives who didn’t quite know what to make of the new analytic units serving them, so they didn’t trust or rely on them.

What’s their level of expertise?

As I already discussed in an earlier post, you must gauge each customer’s level of expertise and then modify your language accordingly. Identify their ability to handle details and jargon, their need for context and backstory, and their ability to challenge your analysis. If you fail to speak at your customer’s level of expertise, you risk communicating at too complicated a level, leaving your customer confused, or speaking too simplistically, which might insult them.

How do you answer my four questions? Do your homework! Ideally, you’ll have an opportunity to talk to your customer in person and ask them about their needs and preferences, and they’ll give you rich feedback on your products that will facilitate course correction. At this point, some of you are laughing, because, like me, you realize that such a sensible approach is rarely an option. When it’s not, talk to others who know your customers. Talk to their gatekeepers, look them up online. Anything you can do to have a better picture of your customers and their needs will increase your chances of succeeding as an analyst. Learn more in my new course, Strategies for Success as an Analyst.

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