How to Determine What Your Customers Want

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other”–Eric Hoffer, author and philosopher.

Customers don’t know what they want. Their buying decisions are more a function of persuasion, influence, and social pressure than internalized desires. Contrary to popular wisdom, the customer isn’t always right.

Because of the huge gulf between what customers say they want and what they buy, basing product development decisions on what they say they want is risky. It’s a futile exercise to encourage customers to dream up possibilities untethered to the practicality of delivering such products to the market. What’s more, customers are particularly bad at providing insight into new product initiatives. Henry Ford said that had he surveyed the population about what they wanted in transportation, they would have lobbied for &”faster horses.”

Why you should not survey customers
Relying heavily on customer surveys is a mistake for many reasons.

  • Conducting customer surveys is expensive and time-consuming. While most professional surveys are outsourced, the sponsoring company still must dedicate substantial resources to providing direction into survey design, desired learnings and interpretation of collected data.
  • Obtaining an accurate perception of customers’ thoughts is nearly impossible. Customers’ responses are often swayed by a single word or by the order in which  questions are asked. The integrity of customer surveys can also be compromised when the wrong people are surveyed as well as when the right people are surveyed in the wrong setting. Asking the same people the same question at different times of the day–or even before or after a meal!–can yield different responses.
  • Customers don’t want to be bothered answering surveys. Being asked to complete a survey that takes longer than the delivery of the service in question is annoying. Simply receiving a survey can so greatly annoy some customers that the company risks diminishing its brand. Customers will often race through surveys just to get them over with; their haphazard responses can cause collateral damage when decisions are made based on such hasty feedback.
  • Being overly solicitous of feedback will inevitably result in criticism. Unwarranted criticism is most likely to be generated when people in a group believe that their ability to criticize is a sign of their intelligence. This criticism can then can cause problems in employee morale and motivation.
  • Some customers aren’t worth having and neither is their opinion. The peril in soliciting extensive feedback is that the most critical and demanding suggestions are likely to come from customers who offer the company diminishing prospects for profitable returns.
  • Customers who are only moderately disappointed with a company become irate when their concerns aren’t addressed. Thus, companies that rely on extensive surveys are faced with a dilemma: either bend to the customers’ wishes or suffer their wrath when failing to do so.
  • Focus groups have issues as well. Focus groups suffer from many of the same issues that cripple customer surveys. In many cases, a dominant personality discourages others from expressing opinions that deviate from their own. When well-run companies want to know what’s on their customers’ minds, they shouldn’t put them in a sterile room with a two-way mirror.

All of this is not to say that there is no merit in conducting customer surveys. One often-overlooked use of customer surveys is that they can be used to justify terminating employees (e.g. when customers are consistently disappointed with a specific customer service representative’s service).

Some of the most revealing customer surveys can be quite simple. There’s considerable merit in Fred Reichheld’s idea that customer surveys designed to measure satisfaction with an existing product or service can be distilled down to one question: “Would you recommend our service to your friends and colleagues.” This powerful question gauges whether or not customers like your product enough to put their own reputations on the line with their friends and colleagues.

How to Determine What Customers Want

It’s far better for a business to assess what its current and potential customers are actually doing. This information can be collected from a variety of touch points–e.g., the sales team, blogs, reviews or the customer service department. Beyond knowing what your customers are doing, here are some general principles to keep in mind when determining what your customers want.

  • Know what problem the product solves. New products need to 1) address a problem indentified by consumers, 2) offer utility and 3) provide relief to sensitive customer pressure points. The more a new product fills these needs, the more success it should have.
  • Use value and innovation as the guiding parameters. Innovation should lead to truly consequential improvements in your product or service.
  • Monitor what your customers are doing, not what they say they will do. If the majority of people participating in surveys say that losing weight is of paramount importance, but they’re still buying large amounts of unhealthy foods, a new dessert will face a large target market. On a similar note, companies are now hiring anthropologists to follow customers around and observe how products are actually used. For example, Microsoft hired an anthropologist to monitor how computer users typically access their files. These findings were incorporated into Windows’ new graphical user interface.
  • Harness statistics and probability to determine the likelihood of appeal of new products. By employing modeling software, businesses can decipher non-obvious correlations. For instance, analytical programs have discovered that fans of romantic movies are good targets for car rental companies offering weekend deals. These customers are lured by the appeal of an “escape” similar to what’s depicted in the romantic movies.
  • Advertise and market your product intelligently. People are highly malleable and persuadable by advertising. Get influential people to embrace your product. Many new products are given to visible people and celebrities in the hopes of having media stars photographed with the newly-released product. Red Bull was clever in its attempts to convince people that it had already captured a coterie of hip consumers; it placed crushed cans of Red Bull in the restrooms of popular nightclubs.

While there is no sure-fire method for determining what new products customers will embrace, these principles will help companies launch new products that win wide acceptance.

David Wanetick is a Managing Director at IncreMental Advantage, a research boutique based in Princeton, NJ. Representatives from more than 850 Fortune 1000 companies have participated in programs produced by IncreMental Advantage. David is the author of three books that have achieved world-wide acclaim, the most recent of which is The Power of Incremental Advantage: How Incremental Improvements Produce Dramatically Disproportionate Results.

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