The 11 Universal Types of Customers You Need to Know

We all want to do the right thing: look at every customer without prejudice and serve each of them to their satisfaction. The approach is morally sound, but it often dashes against the reality of customer service. Hard.

The concept of bounded rationality aptly describes the problem. It says that our decision-making skills are only as good as time, information and cognitive ability allow. In customer service, at least the former two are often in scarce supply.

The human solution to overcome this are heuristics , mental shortcuts. Preconceptions about others are probably the most common example. For support agents, the daily challenge is to steer a middle course between anticipating the counterpart’s preferences and upholding the most basic virtues and principles of customer service . To draw on useful shortcuts but avoid psychological biases and stereotyping .

After all, sensing a customer’s needs and adjusting your behavior accordingly works in favor of the customer. Because classification helps in that regard, here are the 11 universal types of customers you need to know.

  1. The Prospect
  2. The Novice
  3. The Patron
  4. The Sleeper
  5. The Tourist
  6. The Thrifty
  7. The Impulsive
  8. The Scientist
  9. The Sceptic
  10. The Rude
  11. The Aggressors

Types of customers - by business relationship

The Prospect

gif of two people looking at a computer

The Prospect has good product fit, but her degree of interest in your offering may vary. She has no account and doesn’t yet know her way around your site. You’ll find that she spends more time on product pages than your average visitor and checks out different sections of your FAQs.

She’s prone to require help but not always willing to ask for it. She’s curious but not decided to buy from you . Having no affiliation to your brand, she needs solid reasons to put you ahead of the competition. Your first impression can make or break the deal.

How to deal with

Note: Treat referral customers like Prospect. Although they don’t have a blank purchase history and may have an account, they usually know little about you.

The Novice

gif from Pulp Fiction

This first time buyer offers scarce data but may already have an account. Some of the Prospect’s attributes also apply to the Novice: she navigates to similar pages, is likely not familiar with your site and more prone to ask simple questions.

Her first impression was good and led to a purchase, now she’s looking for confirmation that it was the right decision. It’s your chance to back it up and win a potentially loyal customer. A bad support experience, however, can quickly set a new standard and shoo her.

How to deal with

  • Ensure great onboarding (check out our post on best and worst practices )
  • Always clearly define next steps: delivery status updates (if you’re a retailer), best features to start out and reach goals with (if you’re a SaaS)
  • Make sure that you know the Novice’s preferred contact channel and make it available to her

The Patron

gif of two people doing a gang handshake

The Patron is a repeat customer, your ideal customer if you will. She has an account, a rich purchase history and logs in frequently. She knows her way around, as evident from her routine of visiting some favorite pages and her absence from your FAQs. That’s why she’s more prone to ask detail questions instead of basic ones.

The Patron may base her expectations about support quality, speed, and efficiency on previous interactions and they’re likely high. Although she won’t abandon you after a singular underwhelming experience, her frequent purchases suggest that you always offer her your best. She may expect you to remember previous interactions. In fact, treating her like a Novice could lead to alienation.

How to deal with

  • Follow up through her preferred contact channels
  • Show awareness of previous interactions and purchases to reinforce the bond
  • Create awareness within your team, so everyone knows your best customers
  • If key customer: assign personal point of contact
  • Harness identification with your brand: offer bounties for being a vocal advocate on social media or for referring new customers
  • Treat those brand advocates als real VIPs, they’re definitely worth it in the long- run: low maintenance, high returns

Note: When you’ve managed to motivate a Patron to become a vocal brand advocate, treat them like true VIPs during the few times they seek support. Their combination of low maintenance, high returns and marketing value makes for easy and profitable business.

The Sleeper

gif of woman drawing blanket over her head

A (mostly) inactive account owner with few recent logins and no recent purchases. When businesses measure customer loyalty, the Sleeper’s inertia is easily misread. They spot long-standing entries in their data and, disregarding their seldom logins and low spending, file them under “loyal”.

The Sleeper doesn’t ask many questions, she can be invisible. The only reasons why she’s still around at all are her uncertainty about alternatives and the fact that change means effort. If she hasn’t already, someday she’ll silently leave for competitors if they motivate her with a decent offer.

How to deal with

  • Focus on reactivation
  • Dig through purchase data and conversations to find out what motivated her to buy back when she did
  • Reach out through her preferred contact channel and be proactive: offer personalized support and win-back discounts
  • For more information, read our dedicated post on understanding and conquering customer inertia

Types of customers - by personality

The Tourist

gif of Bill Murray hiding behind a tree

Unlike her real-life version, the Tourist is hard to identify online. She doesn’t have an account (nor a selfie stick in her hand) and you can encounter her everywhere on your site. If something, you’ll recognize her by a seemingly random distribution of page views.

Her resistance to well-meaning advances can make this customer type seem like kryptonite for any seller. Her default response is that she’s “just looking,” even though she might not know, kind of know, or know exactly what she’s looking for.

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But all hope is not lost because she’s usually there for some reason and likely willing to spend money if she finds something worth buying. She just doesn’t want to be pressured.

How to deal with

  • “Just looking” is usually code for “don’t push me”, so tread carefully
  • Accept reservations but encourage more interaction by reminding her of the benefits of opening up (e.g. “Great, if you have any question though, don’t hesitate to ask me. I’ll gladly try to help you find the product that suits your needs and is within your budget.”)
  • Ask benign questions that don’t directly probe into her intentions but can get a conversation going (e.g. “Are you looking for yourself or for someone else?”)
  • Offer a combination of direct help and the prospect of being left alone (e.g. “If you tell me what you are looking for, I can point you in the right direction so you don’t have to spend time searching for it”
  • Mention special offers (no complex conditions) as a service appetizer, then politely back off

The Thrifty

gif of man looking at price tag and stepping away from the item

Your classic discount shopper who just loves to make a bargain. Of course, any type of customer can temporarily become a discount hunter or value economicalness. Our Thrifty, however, is always looking for the ultimate deal.

Expect to find her on your sale-slash-outlet and FAQ pages, where she seeks information about both your products and the exact (price) terms of purchasing them. Her goal in many service queries is to make sure a bargain is real or to ask for more ways to cut the cost.

If this sounds unappealing, she’s also often a profitable customer because making good deals can matter more to her than what she ends up spending. She might come in frequently and fill her cart up to the brim with sale items.

How to deal with

  • Inform her about rebate campaigns and point her to discounted products
  • Offer sending regular updates about future discounts and sales via preferred channel (use it as bait to expand your newsletter list)
  • Value-based selling – since products with an excellent value for money can match up to discounted ones

Note: Be careful when you meet discount shoppers who have zero loyalty (poor or no purchase history, no account, frequent visits, always go straight to sale and discount pages) but wants all the attention (many support queries). Let’s call them “Scrooges” – and not waste our resources on them.

The Impulsive

gif of a shopping list that's shorter than what you bought

Similar to the Thrifty, the Impulsive can be a variant of other customer types or a very unique creature. Considering that nearly 100% of online shoppers make an impulse buy at some point, we can safely assume that she’s pretty common either way.

Her tendency to act on impulse is often accompanied by a slight impatience. You’ll see that she spends little time between site entry and checkout. She’s a welcome visitor as she commits to unplanned expenditures but doesn’t want to spend on top of that (good for you!).

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She’ll occasionally be up for the upsell but can still be determined to get a certain price and product. But since she’s more prone to ignore details and risks, she might also be susceptible to sales techniques . If you don’t deceit her on the way, chances are that you’ll win yourself a loyal customer.

How to deal with

  • Deliver quick answers, ideally in real-time
  • Be succinct in your speech
  • Highlight the few most important details
  • Point out incentives to buy right now
  • Make checkout quick and easy
  • Offer a newsletter with product news, discounts, etc.
  • Retarget

The Scientist

gif of Agent Cooper holding a mag

This independent customer type does heavy research before every purchase and is not shy to demonstrate her wisdom. She approaches products analytically and follows the premise that for every product, there is a single best manufacturer and a single best place to buy it, at a single best price.

The Scientist spends much time on a great number of your pages to compare product specs and visits the FAQ before addressing customer support. She’s confident, cautious and demanding – you can expect to get sophisticated questions about products and conditions.

Instead of sales techniques, this customer type only accepts facts and data. She might even double check your offers and remarks. Once you’ve won her over, though, the Scientist is an extremely loyal customer.

How to deal with

  • Make clear, verifiable and reliable statements
  • Set realistic expectations (don’t hesitate to admit when a product doesn’t support her desired feature, it’s a good way to build trust)
  • Proactively back up information with research data, reputable reviews, and comparisons
  • Show her why and how you beat your competitors but don’t lash out against them
  • Avoid education- and value-based selling to not offend her

The Sceptic

gif of Bruce Lee looking sceptical

The Sceptic is typically indecisive and like the Scientist, she spends a lot of time on a number of product pages and browsing your site. Her main driver, however, is the fear of making a mistake and being tricked into bad deals. Consequently, she’s highly alert to pushy sales techniques.

She also tends to reconsider purchases before the final click, showing in longer than average time spent on checkout pages and frequent support inquiries in the last stage of the funnel. You may also identify her by a history of shopping cart abandonments.

She’s the type of customer who’s “better safe than sorry” and so she tends to require and call for help more than the average. If she trusts you, she is a profitable contact.

How to deal with

  • Approach carefully, never push
  • Demonstrate respect for indecision
  • Focus on building trust
  • Find out what keeps her from making a decision and help eliminate concerns
  • Highlight securities (refund policy, reviews, support availability, dedicated contact, etc.)
  • Offer another option when she’s torn between buying product A and not buying at all
  • Use value-based selling to reassure her she’ll get the right product
  • Use education-based selling to boost her confidence

The Rude

gif of a man on a moto in a full subway

A course of conduct that lies dormant in every customer type, it’s common but often subtle. The Rude comes in different forms and shapes.

She may want to provoke you and exert power, may want to vent, may lack manners, or may be a clumsy communicator who means no harm. But underneath all of these expressions of rudeness there lies a willingness to buy.

How to deal with

  • Acknowledge rudeness: too often, it’s perceived as a minor offense and can lead to bad mood, lower job performance and a negative framing of perception
  • Don’t take it personally
  • Keep your cool (like a Stoic), recognize anger cues, distance yourself
  • Excavate and fix the issue that lies beneath the rude behavior
  • Beware ambiguity (e.g. short responses can be perceived as rude even if their originator is just busy or in a rush)
  • Assign authority for hard decisions
  • As a last resort, refuse the service
  • Learn more in our post on dealing with rude customers

The Aggressors

gif of man crashing phones

What I named like a superhero team gone rogue is in fact a collection of various undesirably types of customers: the racist, the sexist, the flirtatious, the trolling, or the outright aggressive.

They’re less common than the Rude, yet not as uncommon as you might wish. At the very most, they’re secondarily interested in buying. If that’s too condemning, the Aggressors at least risk to be perceived that way.

How to deal with

  • Take a stance but don’t try to educate or shame them as it will only reinforce the stubborn person’s position
  • Stop negative behavior in its tracks, so service can continue with both sides’ dignity intact
  • React against the issue, not the person
  • Urge them to focus on business
  • As a last resort, cut the conversation
  • Read our post on the hardest customer service scenarios

Remember that each of the above descriptions is a pointed emphasis of a certain type of customer. You’ll meet these characters at the front line, but in varying distinctness and often as hybrids of more than one type. Take these profiles as cues to deliver the best possible service: reasoned and efficient, but still personal.