In the early days of running a small or medium-sized business, your initial customers might be friends, acquaintances or even family members. Next will come the strangers — though hopefully they won’t remain strangers for long. 

The most successful SMBs learn to really know their customers, whether they’re welcoming them into a store, meeting with them in a boardroom or simply engaging through digital channels like an e-commerce site or on social media. 

When the relationship develops further, you’ll begin to know what kinds of products and services your customers love most, and make highly relevant suggestions as new items come in. 

You’ll learn the best (and worst) times to reach out with a special promotion or offer. 

Most importantly, you won’t treat customers like a total stranger when they approach you afterwards for service and support. 

A lot of this can be accomplished through the strategic collection, management and analysis of customer data. This is information that gets shared or exchanged at multiple points along the customer journey. 

The analysis you do is the critical part, and it goes beyond simply using technology. You also have to apply your critical thinking skills, including the use of your imagination. 

Only by being able to imagine what a customer is seeing, thinking and feeling along the journey can you make that journey better. 

When you look at the entirety of the experience you offer through their eyes, you begin to spot the moments of friction. Or the areas where there could be more to surprise and delight them. You also see what’s working really well, and what you can build upon. 

This isn’t just a matter of “walking in their shoes.” It’s imagining them before they ever become your customer, and what happens after they’ve finished engaging with you for the time being and go on with their day. 

Anyone in your company can (and should) go through this exercise, because it will make your company more empathetic and therefore more likely to improve the overall customer experience. Try these five things: 

1. Go through your own company’s purchasing or signup process

You might assume you already know everything it takes to become a customer. Until you actually try it for yourself, that is. 

Many signup and purchase processes start out simple, and the complexity is only added bit by bit. You (or someone else in the company) might have decided you wanted to collect some extra information when signing up for a service, or making an e-commerce purchase. Perhaps later on you added a mini-survey before sending the confirmation e-mail. Or you introduced a “Create An Account” process that turns out to be quite lengthy now that you’re seeing it first-hand. 

Take notes throughout this process and, if you’re doing this with others in the company, compare notes to see which observations were common and any other areas for improvement you might have overlooked. 

2. Open your own company’s email messages

You can take all the time you want looking over a newsletter or promotion before it goes out, but it’s different when you’re on the receiving end. 

Look at your inbox, and where your company’s message sits among all the other ones. Is the subject line compelling enough that it makes you want to open it? Once it’s opened, can you read it right away, or are the image sizes so large they take some time to load (or your email client blocks them by default)? Does the content drive you to take action, and is it clear how you would take that action in the form of a button, URL or another email address? 

Also consider the unsubscribe process. Customers don’t always opt out because they’re no longer interested in being a customer. They might just get too much email. If the unsubscribe link is difficult to find, though, you’re in trouble. 

3. Record an ‘unboxing video” of your own product

YouTube is filled with creators who get thousands of views by showcasing the moment they take a product out of its packaging for the first time. As they unbox, they marvel at the product — its design, its feature set and everything else they can think of. They make you really appreciate everything about it. 

Even if you don’t actually turn on a real camera, pretend you’re one of those YouTubers and try to enthuse over the process of unboxing your product. 

Do the right words immediately come to mind? Or do you struggle to get the product to turn on and work properly?

If you have a hard time even opening the box, well, you know what your next to-do should be. 

4. Fill out your own company’s feedback form

Hopefully you’re the kind of company that is soliciting input from customers on their experience through many different channels, including social media and chat. Still, surveys and feedback forms are a classic way to make sure the voice of the customer has been heard. 

If you have one of those forms online — even if it’s been somewhat buried on your site — fill it out after you’ve tried your own product or service. Putting aside everything you know about what goes on behind the scenes at the company, what would you say about your experience’s pros and cons? 

We often do these kinds of self-evaluations in our performance review process, but doing it on the level of your company overall can be eye-opening. 

5. Review your own product

Depending on how long you’ve been running your company, you’ve probably gotten all kinds of reviews — from “highly recommended” to “don’t buy it” to “meh.”

This time, you be the reviewer. It could be as long as an article you’d read in a magazine or blog post. It could be just a paragraph. 

The point is whether you find it easy to say genuinely positive things about the entirety of your experience, from the product or service itself to all the processes wrapped around them. 

Now that you’ve lived out what it’s like to be your own customer, you hopefully have some fresh perspective on how to better serve the rest of them — whether they’re friends, strangers, or those who quickly become your most loyal fans.