What Does the Customer Really Want

Quick Summary: Your perception of what the customer wants may be very different than the customer’s.


It is easy to project what you think customers should think about your idea. It is easy to rationalize any opinions that are contrary to what you want customers to want.  Stop thinking about it and ask them and then carefully, objectively listen to what they say. 

You have this great idea for a new product or service,  all of your friends and associates agree with you that it is just the thing the market needs and wants.  As time goes on, the idea not only crystallizes, but becomes so real that it is almost hard to believe that it isn’t exactly right.  The thought that you have missed the mark never enters your mind.  You know that you know you’ve got it.  But how do you really know?  It is easy: Ask individuals that can make or at least recommend buying decisions.

Your idea may be better, but it may be only a little bit better.  Incremental improvements do not move mountains.  We often see ads touting the “new and improved” this or that.  Do these ads cause you to make a fundamental shift in your buying habits?  Have you ever stopped to think about the company’s current product?  If the new one is new and improved, is the current product old and broken?  Remember Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion, quoted a number of times in these articles:  “Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest, while bodies in motion tend to stay in motion.”  You have to distrust what you think and what your experience has taught you: Ask prospects if your offering has sufficient incremental value to entice them to adopt it. Then listen to what they say.

Ask individuals, not focus groups. One or two highly opinionated (read overbearing) individuals within a focus group can sway the entire group.  Individual one-to-one conversations are far less intimidating and will be far less ego driven by either of you. Do not rely on forms or surveys.  The reason behind the response to your questions or the different directions that a verbal response can take will provide far more insight than the tabular results from a “statistically valid sample”.  If you doubt this, just consider the election predictions from the “experts”; how often are they correct?

The other advantage of talking to individuals instead of groups is that the individuals are much more likely to think of themselves and their personal likelihood to purchase your product or service.  They will compare your offering to what they currently have and think about the effort to change.  The “Power of Incumbency” is hard to overcome.

Keep in mind that customers will talk about what they want today and will use their past experiences as benchmarks for tomorrow.  Seldom will customers envision the future.  Think about the first iPhone.  Although there were a number of smartphones on the market before the iPhone, did you foresee or even wish for all of the features and functions that it included?  Before Google, many people randomly searched the web.  After Google, most people make highly targeted searches.  Follow the lead of Apple, Google, and others and provide what customers will love, not just merely need.

When Apple first introduced the Macintosh, it was far from a stellar performer.  Much to the dismay of the other computer suppliers, users didn’t care; it was intuitive and easy.    The original Macintosh as an example, from a performance perspective, along with its restrictive form factor and totally closed and proprietary architecture, would lose virtually every side by side comparison with Wintel based PCs.  It is doubtful that any PC user group would have envisioned the Mac before its launch.  It certainly wasn’t a middle of the road, incremental product.  Its unique features overcame the market momentum and rational, logical thinking of others.

An easy trap to fall into is thinking that your product or service is the customer’s center of the universe just as it is yours.  Unquestionably, you will be emotionally tied to your idea. Others may view your product or service as just a necessary evil, something that must be purchased and then forgotten.  Some people buy automobiles as a necessary means of transportation while others view them as an extension of who they are.  Keep your offering in perspective.

If you ask customers, be ready to truly listen especially if the answers are not what you want to hear.  Perhaps you are right and the others are wrong.  Perhaps.  When you start to think, “they just don’t get it”, step back to make sure it is they who don’t get and not you who “didn’t give it”.

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