The holy grail of marketing is putting the right product in front of the right person at the right time. And one of the very best ways to find that sweet spot is by having the ability to predict in advance what you should be putting in front of that person.

So what forms the basis of a prediction? At the simplest level, it starts with understanding your customers. Once you do that, you can put all the things you’ve learned together and come up with a theory. And then you put the theory to the test. But at its very core, prediction starts with listening.Listen_body copy

Here’s a story about two friends that’ll show you what I mean.

There’s a super-friendly guy who lives in my neighborhood. He lived in the U.K. for about two years, and while he was there, he became a huge fan of Manchester United. Every time I see him on the street he talks to me about this soccer team. But I have no interest. I try to talk about our local sports teams, something less controversial like religion and politics—anything except Manchester United. But every time I try to talk to him about anything else, he turns around and brings it back to his favorite footballers.

And at a neighborhood block party last weekend, I found out I’m not the only one. Apparently it’s all he talks to everyone else about, too. He’s even earned the moniker Manchester Mike. At this point, the neighborhood crew is basically shutting him out and ignoring him. No matter how hard they try to change the subject, or try to show that they’re not interested, he just keeps going… and going… and going.

The reality is, Manchester Mike just doesn’t know how to read his audience. He’s getting clues left and right, but he’s not paying attention to them. But he’s not alone. I have this other buddy who I’m in the same boat with. His name? Tommy Bahama.

No, I’m not hanging out with good ol’ imaginary Tommy, kicking back and drinking Mai Tais on a tropical beach. But I’m a huge fan of the laid-back, resort-wear brand. I buy their jeans, shirts, even the occasional watch­—and at least once every summer, I buy swim trunks. But you know what I don’t buy? Anything from their women’s line. And neither does my wife. But my pal Tommy simply doesn’t care.

Today, for the third time in the last four days, I got an email from Tommy Bahama. What’s in it? Lots of summery dresses and frilly tank tops. While I can appreciate a nice dress as much as the next guy, what in the world gives them any inclination that I’m remotely interested in buying womenswear? I’ve never once clicked through on anything to do with their women’s line. So why do they keep telling me about it?

And then it hit me: Tommy Bahama’s the same as Manchester Mike. Every time I don’t click through, I’m telling them, “Hey, guess what? I don’t care.” But I don’t think they care either. I’m about ready to kiss them goodbye for the same reason I’m about ready to say “see ya” to Manchester Mike. Neither of them are listening to me—they’re talking at me.

So what does this have to do with prediction? Well, a lot. In our world, there are all sorts of clues that you’re talking at someone. They’re not clicking through. When they get to your site, they’re bouncing. Their page view count is super low, and they never buy.

Everything Tommy Bahama needs to know to have a great conversation with me is sitting there right in front of their faces, but they’d rather just send an email touting the benefits of bikinis that best suit my frame. And they’re probably wondering, “Wow, we’re sending more and more emails, and it’s not working. What’s going on?”

Your customers are telling you what they’re interested in all the time. For every visitor who comes to your site, you know what pages they like to look at. You know the products they tend to buy. You know that they may buy men’s jeans, men’s shirts, a watch every now and then, and a swimsuit every summer. You’re sitting on this data, but you just have to know how to access it—and what to do with it. And the first step to doing this is to stop talking and start listening. Only then will you be ready to take the next step to offering up the ultimate customer experience.

Be on the lookout for Bruce’s next blog post where he’ll fill you in to all the awesome things you can do with data once you start listening—and then start taking action.

SHHHH image courtesy of Shutterstock.