Don’t give customers what they think they want


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It is pretty much accepted wisdom these days that companies should be customer focused. It is however unfortunate that most companies go the wrong way about this by asking their customers what they want. Customers describe their requirements in terms of products and services and then when the company builds and delivers they are not desired or bought. Henry Ford put it very well “if we ask customers what they want they’ll ask for faster horses”.

And yet at the end of the first decade of the 21st century a surprising and somewhat alarming majority of companies do precisely that. Why does this fail?

Fundamentally when the customer is asked the question “what do you want from us” the answer comes in terms of product and service. Customers when faced with this question extrapolate from their own experiences and what they know of your products and service. Hence it shouldn’t be any great surprise when the requirements are bounded by current ‘inside out’ thinking. Our organizations then construct complex systems and processes to meet the requirements, develop ‘customer focused’ strategies and seek to demonstrate with measurement systems, scorecards and the like that what they are doing is what the customer asked for. Meanwhile competitors are beating us at our own game.

So how can we resolve this apparent conundrum? The answer is delightfully simple, as are most things involving Successful Customer Outcomes (SCO’s). We should be asking the more relevant question “what is the customers desired outcome?”. This subtlety takes us to a new place of understanding and opens the potential for innovation and the opportunity to challenge our existing business thinking.

Making customers life’s simpler, easier and more successful is a cornerstone of SCO’s. Once we have understood the SCO we should then align everything in our organization to achieve that endeavor – without exception. We can design measurement systems which understand the SCO and the various steps to achieving it. Measuring becomes a simpler task. We should create systems which contribute directly to achieving the SCO. In fact no development should be taking place if there isn’t a demonstrable direct linkage to getting the SCO. In fact everything the company does should be progressively aligned to achieving SCO’s, and not as we often see in delivering faster horses.

How do we create this new order? Again the answer is a simple one and not bounded by the inside-out complexity which befuddles so many companies. Your improvement approaches should also be aligned to creating, understanding, and implementing approaches that, yes, contribute to the SCO.

That’s where Customer Expectation Management (CEM) comes in. As an Advanced form of business process and performance management it goes the extra mile and applies our focus to SCO’s. As a consequence these ‘outside-in’ companies are able to progressively and continually innovate and create clear water between themselves and rivals and in many instances becoming market leaders. That’s what US based Best Buy did with their customer centricity strategy. That’s what FedEx Kinko are doing with their massively simplified idea to delivery process. This is what Virgin Group do across their network of more than 100 companies.

It isn’t always about market leadership though. Simply getting better against a backdrop of increasing competition, technology innovation, tightening regulation and customer promiscuity would be great for most. Going the CEMMethod(tm) route gets you where you want and need to be.

In our 2006 book “Customer Expectation Management – Success without Exception” we reviewed the theory and several case studies which is now accessible as a complete method, with supporting toolkits, resources and techniques. The CEMMethod(tm) can be taught, customized and developed to suit different environments and commercial challenges. In the last 5 years more than 8000 people have qualified as Certified Process Professionals and incorporated this approach into their thinking at all levels – from the board room to the lunch room.

In summary then we should be asking customers what is their successful outcome and once we understand that progressively move to align everything we do to achieving that through our people, process, technology and ultimately strategy.

Good hunting for your Successful Customer Outcomes.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steve Towers
A seasoned practitioner with over 30 years of hands-on experience, Steve Towers is one of industry's noted experts in BPM, Customer Expectation Management and Performance transformation. Towers heads the Research & Professional Services network within the BP Group, the world's first and premier network for Process & Performance professionals.


  1. Hi Steve Thanks for the article. I love your subtle (and not so subtle) disctinctions around customer questions. The quote I’ve been using a lot lately is that “the purest form of communication is to listen without memory or desire.” Put another way a business needs to ask questions firmly in their customers agenda, not from their own agenda. This means letting go of “revenue” or “sales” as a context for your questions. Businesses around the world need to learn the simplicity of truly listening in the customers agenda. I’m sure your material will assist greatly in this important endeavour

  2. Well Steve, you can keep reposting this message on a bi-weekly bases, although I doubt it will change the world. But the issue is very true. I find that just a small percentage of companies does even try to really listen to its customers. And sadly enough, only a very tiny percentage of that small group is hunting for outcomes. So much work to do.

    I personally like the idea of companies doing some homework on potential desired outcomes even before even touching on this subject with their customers. I can remember someone quoting Henry Ford “If I had asked them what they wanted, they had asked for faster horses”.


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