How Do You Know What Customers Want?

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT CUSTOMERS WANTI argue about, harangue, debate and insist that in most Craft Product or service businesses you Should Never Give The Customers What They Want. But instead you should Give Them What You Do Best. I have even written an entreaty about how Customers Don’t Exist.

So it should come as but a trifling surprise that I would ponder the as good as existential question:

How Do You Know What Customers Want?

I mean it literally. How do you know what customers want? When those poor, mistaken souls weakly blather that you simply must give customers what they want, how do they determine what it is precisely that customers want? Clearly they don’t ask them, at least not all of them. Here are some ways I could think of to find out what customers want in order to give it to them. (and presumably become a billionaire)

  1. Ask each and every one of them personally and studiously record the answers and then data crunch to your heart’s content
  2. Do a mass survey and ask them all at once (or smart marketing: in carefully sliced segments)
  3. Do scientific product/market trials and use data to analyze which products/services you sell appease to the most customers
  4. Wait for them to tell you what they want

Let’s break the down one by one and see which one will work best. 

  1. Ask each customer personally

If you have a very small number of customers then this is remarkably simple seeming task. Just call or visit each one and ask them what they want. What could go wrong with a direct frontal approach to finding out what customers want? Afterall, all customers always know exactly what they want and can clearly articulate it to you in fine enough detail to make it something you can easily deliver on, right? So how would you formulate the questions to ask the customer what they want? (Remember though that customers don’t exist) Would you ask them an open-ended question like “What do you want?” Or something more germain like “What do you want from me?” Setting aside the immense difficulties in coming up with the precise questions to get the answer you are seeking, it is important to remember that data always lies. (That’s my next article tomorrow). The only data you can trust to tell you the truth is a question. OK but let’s assume that you got some sort of answers from your customers. The next obvious problem is that if you ask your customers what they want you have already self circumscribed your total customer market to be only those individuals. So knowing, however vaguely, what those specific customers want how will you find out what your NOT Customers want? And if you have a lot of customers then the issue of the timing and logistics of asking them individually rears its ugly head. So that’s the next solution.

2. Do a mass customer survey

Excellent! Now you are thinking like a marketer. Instead of spending all your time and effort asking each customer one at a time, you instead spend much more of your brainwaves and time on formulating the questions to ask, the segments of customers to focus on with which questions. Now you are cooking with gas. You spend a great deal of time strategizing on the perfect questions to ask to get the perfect data. You send out the mass survey and eagerly await your customers rabid responses to your carefully formulated questions delivered at the perfect inbox time with the projected highest inbox open rates. And you wait. And wait, and wait and wait. A few customers are replying and telling you what they want. But the percentage is too damned small to be statistically relevant. And the responses are either randomly scattered across every thing a customer could want or all lumped into contradicting needs and desires that are far away from what you actually do. You resend, risk and reformulate. You get slightly higher total responses but still don’t have 100% data on the answer to what do customers want. So maybe it’s a job for product/market fit and iteration?

3. Scientifically do product/market fit trials

OK the idea of asking your customers what they want, although dripping with business warm fuzzies, customer-centric thinking and modern techniques clearly doesn’t actually give you the answer. In fact it almost seemed to bring up more questions than answers. So the plan is to do tightly measured, regimented product/market fit trials with differentiated products fit precisely to target market segments. You use market leading analytics to real-time analyze these product/market fit trials. As the results come pumping in with usage data, eye ball tracking, real-time UX feedback, customer trials, sales data and all the other thousands of data bits that you can siphon off the product/market fit trials. And what better way to get a handle on finding what customers want than judging solely by what they actually buy? Because clearly no customer has ever made a purchase devoid of reason or on a whim. No customer has ever regretted a purchase after the fact and still neglected to complain about it to the company. Plus you have real-time perfect data on every aspect of the product and the market right? Combine that with your unlimited budget and staff to simultaneously launch and monitor as many hundreds of products it takes to know what the customer wants and you have a perfect storm of marketing awesomeness. But what if you don’t have all that?

  4. Wait for them to tell you

This is the strategy utilized by the vast majority of businesses. They wouldn’t actually say out loud that they are literally just sitting and waiting for customers to tell them what they want. Because that would be considered lunacy. So they sit in their business and wait for customers to tell them what they want. And miraculously they DO! Well, at least a few, really loud, disgruntled, dissatisfied, pissed off or overly enthusiastic customers take the time to tell you what they want. They have extremely strong opinions on what your business should do, sell, serve, offer and provide them. They tell you loudly, clearly and constantly why they want. You remember that for every letter sent to Congress there is another 1,000 people who feel the same way but didn’t take the time to write. So you studiously collect these “wants” and assume that they represent a large number of possible or existing customers. You modify your product and/or service offerings to more closely match what the customers want. You are stoked! You know what customers want because they told you! Sales slowly drop. Profit drops even faster. Customers leave dissatisfied. Staff is frustrated because these newly empowered customers, although a microscopic minority of your total customers, are getting a disproportionate level of service and product. So maybe you still don’t know what customers want?

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So how do you know what customers want? Can you actually know what they want? Do you actually want to know? More importantly what would you do differently than you do now?

Thoughts and Counter Thoughts?