What do you mean? Figuring out what customers really want, besides what they tell you.

what customers really want

We often start projects with the best intentions even though they may be wrongly directed. That’s why it is really important to take a step back and find out: What does the customer really want? Let’s take a look at this.

At the beginning of each new project, most people in charge feel like going to Disneyland for the first time. Everything seems to be possible after they have fought hard internally for budget and resources. Therefore, they are receptive for new trends, ways of working and unknown methodologies. One of the key terms that has been widely discussed is the topic of ‘customer-centricity’ defined as a proactive business strategy which shifts its focus on products towards the customers, with their needs and wishes.

Focusing on customer-centricity leads corporations not only to change their mission statements but also to focus on new ways to develop products. In most cases, incorporating market research emphasizing quantitative data with the clear goal of validating existing product ideas as well as collecting as many customer wishes as possible.

What could possibly go wrong with this approach?

Do not get me wrong, testing hypothesis is the backbone of well-executed customer research and customers do have valid pains and wishes. Yet, it is not what you say, but how you say it. Bluntly asking customers what they think of a certain idea or what other features would increase the likelihood of a sales may not get the desired results.

Why? Let’s have a look at an example:

what customers really want

For some people, drinking a juice a day keeps the doctor away or at least it gives them a good, healthy feeling. On the left hand side, you see the picture of a typical juice stand in Teheran. Making a juice is quite simple: you throw some apples, carrots and ginger into the juicer and three seconds later you hold the juice in your hands. Juicero, a start-up from San Francisco, set out to revolutionize the art of making juice focusing on relieving common pains. It raised more than $118 million in funding from prominent VCs like Google Ventures.

Retracing Juicero’s initial steps, let’s put ourselves in imaginary user interviews asking about common pains that they have experienced:

  • Some people may be fed up by carrying all the heavy fruits and vegetables to their home.
  • Some may lament that preparing a juice always leaves the kitchen as a mess and the machines are notoriously difficult to clean.
  • Others want to know exactly about the nutritional information of their juice.

what customers really want

The extensiveness of customer wishes was reflected in the $400 machine: its sleek and modern design looked great in every kitchen but there were no real fruit or vegetables that you could put into it. Instead, customers had to buy single-serving packets of pre-juiced fruits and vegetables sold exclusively by the company by subscription. Customers needed to scan them and then hope for a stable wifi connection to make some juice. All in all, the hype was soon over and Juicero filled for bankruptcy and closed in 2017.

The term ‚customer-centricity‘ is often misused

It is not only about making a customer happy but to genuinely understand what the customer wants and needs. There are certain inquiry methods to understanding better what may be happening inside customers.

First, do not fall into the the ‘Mom test’ trap.

The idea behind it is essentially focusing on asking your mother if any of your ideas is a good idea because she loves you and will therefore lie to you (compare The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick). From a broader perspective, this applies to everyone directly confronted with a concrete idea: they will most likely lie to you either because they do not care or because they feel socially pressured to do so.

  • Therefore, it is essential to understand the current living situation and how the target customer currently solves a certain problem with open-ended questions.

Second, understand the ‘jobs-to-be-done’ framework.

Clayton Christensen (Professor at Harvard Business School) exemplified another way of approaching this problem with his jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) framework. Being hired by an international fast food chain to increase their milkshake sales, he firstly fell into the same trap. Solely focusing on milk shakes as product category made the research team focus on ‘feature enhancements‘ to motivate customers to buy more without grasping the bigger job that the milkshake performed for them.

The main idea is that people hire products to get jobs done, having a set of metrics in mind that define the successful execution of that job. These desired outcomes can be captured as actionable customer need statements. In the milkshake research case all customers shared a common job they needed to get done in the morning: „Help me stay awake and occupied while making my morning commute more fun.“ These insights were derived from field study: ethnographic observations and open customer interviews. Like shooting a documentary, it is more about capturing the full story with all its facets and reasons for their behaviour than simply on who did something.

  • In order to use the JTBD framework to its full extent, it is necessary to examine the complete main job as well as related jobs in context and competitors. Main competitors for the morning milkshake may be a banana, a donut or a Snickers but they all have different disadvantages that make the customer choose the milkshake for instance over the difficulty of eating a donut with just one hand without ruining the fresh work outfit.

This leads to you broadening your research horizon.

It is key to use qualitative observation techniques and open-ended questions in interviews to capture the full context of the customers’ problem to get a specific job done. Is there a more efficient way to get the job done? Do some customers struggle more than others (eg. older versus younger)?

Put yourself in the shoes of your customer. You would not want to cobble together different services and products but have one that supports you to get the entire job done. Thus, look beyond the problem at hand.

During execution be sure to work iteratively. There is no need for $5,000 usability testings but use a smaller setting to test different ideas, maybe even within your company – any kind of objective observation and open conversation is valuable.


(Cover photo by Johann Walter Bantz.)

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