Here’s Why You Don’t Know What Your Customer Needs


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Does everyone in your company agree upon what a customer need is? I’m not asking what do your customers need I’m asking do you know what a need is? Go ahead; ask a few of your co-workers. Ask your management team. Ask yourself. Without a doubt, you will get wide-ranging responses; and this should concern you. After all, you are in business to serve your customers, and if you can’t identify what a need is, you have little hope of understanding your customers unmet needs. This common lack of understanding is exactly why we reflexively latch on to concepts such as Voice of the Customer (VOC) which add little or no additional precision to our ability to predict what customers want.

I’m rehashing what has already been said because it needs to be stated more often, and it needs to be understood by more people. I will give you a list of resources at the end of this post for those of you who would like to explore this topic in more depth.

Since it’s clear that very few companies have developed a capability to identify their customers’ unmet needs (let alone all of their needs), they implement an ideas-first approach to devising solutions to unknown problems. They then test them in the market; which accounts for the dramatic statistics surrounding new product failures. Typically, these ideas never address all of a customer’s needs and even if they get a hit by pure chance, they have no way to reproduce, or sustain, that success. After all, it was just an idea.

mistaken-needsOutcome-driven Innovation proponents will tell you that this process of solving problems should be needs-first and not ideas first. In order to build a systematic, scientific and reproducible understanding of customers’ needs you need to follow a very simple process:

  • You must uncover all the customer’s needs
  • You must then determine which needs are unmet
  • You must devise solutions that specifically address the unmet needs.

I am going to cover point 1 in this post. Getting back to asking your colleagues what a customer need is, let’s take a look at what they might say. More often than not, they are going to tell you that you need to ask the customer; but this presents the biggest problem with VOC. The inputs you receive run the gamut from wants to benefits to wishes to specifications. The customer will always answer you in the context of your product or solution; but this doesn’t really address their need. They don’t need your product or service and the way they articulate their requirements tends to shift dramatically over time. Companies that ask the wrong questions, in the wrong context, are doomed to failure.

Your customer is trying to get a functional (or emotional) job, or jobs, done. Their needs relate directly to how well they are able to get those jobs done in their special context and with the solutions available in the market.

Let’s first agree that customers buy products and services that help them get tasks and activities done, and their ability to do so helps them to achieve goals. We use the word job to describe these sorts of things. Therefore, understanding a customer need begins with understanding the jobs they are trying to get done; and not just the specific task your product may help them with. To gain a competitive advantage in a market you need to help them get more jobs done with a single solution (or platform). Following are the sorts of things you should be looking for:

Discover why current services are being hired

A good place to start is to uncover what customers are trying to accomplish when they use your product or service. You might be surprised at the variety of answers. Ask questions like:

  • What are you trying to accomplish by using the product (or service)?
  • What goals or objectives does this product (or service) help you to accomplish?
  • What problems does this service help you to prevent or resolve?

Discover why current services might be hired

Try to uncover what other things a customer is trying to accomplish that don’t necessarily relate to your offering (today). Ask questions like:

  • What would the ideal service help you to accomplish?
  • What else are you trying to accomplish before (during and after) using the current product or service?
  • What other responsibilities do you have before (during and after) using the current product or service?
  • What other product or services would you like to be offered before (during and after) using the current product or service?
    • What would they allow you to accomplish?

Discover other jobs in areas of broader responsibility

Ask your customers about other responsibilities they have in their role. Perhaps they have multiple related roles. Ask questions like:

  • What are you trying to accomplish in this job area?
    • What tasks are you doing?
  • What are your goals and objectives in that area of responsibility?
  • What problems are you trying to prevent or resolve there?
  • What are you trying to determine or decide in that area of responsibility?

Discover experience jobs

Since value is not exchanged at the time of a transaction, but realized over time, the experience of using a product or service is important to understand. Ask questions like:

  • What experiences are you seeking as you seek to accomplish your goals?
  • What are you trying to experience by using this product (or service)?
  • What would the ideal solution help you to experience?

Discover emotional jobs

Emotional jobs relate to personal feelings as well as how you wish to be perceived as it relates to getting a job done or accomplishing a goal. Ask questions like:

  • If you had the ideal solution for getting this job done, how would that make you feel?
  • How would you be perceived (by peers, subordinates, superiors, family, friends, etc)?
  • What feelings or perceptions would be avoided?

This is great information for marketers since emotions play a large role in purchase decisions.

Discover new and emerging jobs

Since we can’t be an expert in every market, and markets change over time, it’s important to ask customers what developments might have an impact on their ability to get things done, and accomplish goals. Ask a question like:

  • What new jobs/tasks/goals will you need to accomplish as a result of
    • Knowledge Discovery
    • Legal actions
    • Regulatory changes
    • Technology changes

After interviewing a number of customers, you should be able to identify many jobs they are trying to get done, along with specific contexts that could be very important as well. Unfortunately, this is where most people stop; and typically after asking all the wrong questions! The jobs that come out of your initial round of interviews need to be organized. The first thing you need to do is identify each job by understanding its execution step. This is similar to the rules of identifying a business process. A job statement should be constructed consistently like this:

{Verb} + {Object of the Verb} + {Contextual Clarifier} + {example of object of the verb}

For instance, one of many marketing jobs might look like this:

Locate a profitable customer segment for our service…e.g.; acquisition cost less than revenue created

Once you have structured all of the discovered jobs, you need to think about scope. Therefore, you will need to rank them in some fashion so you can focus on those top x jobs the customers deem most important. You could collect information about importance, frequency and frustration as you perform interviews and rank them with a simple set of formulas. Or you could construct a MaxDiff survey if you’d like the precision of a broader population.

In order to have better context of a customer’s desired outcomes (or needs), it’s important to realize that a job is not merely the execution step. There are steps we need to understand before and after the execution step in order to ensure that it gets done to the customer’s satisfaction.

What has to happen before the execution step to ensure the job gets carried out successfully?

  • Define – what must be defined or planned prior to the execution step
  • Locate – what must be located or gathered prior to the execution step
  • Prepare – what must be prepared or set up prior to the execution step
  • Confirm – what must be confirmed before the execution step

What has to happen after the execution step to ensure that the jobs get carried out successfully?

  • Monitor – what must be monitored or verified after the execution step to ensure the job was successfully performed?
  • Modify – what must be modified or adjusted after the execution step (based on the monitoring)
  • Conclude – what must be done to properly conclude the job or prepare for the job cycle.

Each category could have one or more steps and is often represented visually. You will need to pursue additional interviews to identify the steps supporting the job. I will forego the mapping process and let you look at much better material than I can produce(see end of series for links). But one thing you must do for each step you uncover is validate the step. Validation ensures that the step specifies what a customer is trying to accomplish, not how they are trying to accomplish it. For example:

Valid Step: Determine customer’s lifetime value
Invalid Step: Calculate lifetime value in spreadsheet

What’s important to know about job steps is that each step can have 5 to 10 (maybe more) needs related to it. If we follow the same principles we did for understanding the job, we can turn these needs into forward looking metrics.

Customers use metrics to define the successful execution of a specific job. These metrics are the customer’s desired outcomes which are essentially their needs. The job is something that remains fairly stable over time (feed your family – contexts could change) but the metrics surrounding the job will change as technology, regulations and other factors change (farm to table, grocer to table, freezer to microwave to table, etc.). The true definition of value is the ability to perfectly execute a job and since things change, we need a way to monitor that change so we can see where value is shifting. Understanding customer needs is a job too! In fact, it’s a job every company has, and a capability every company should develop.

Now that we have our job(s) mapped it’s certainly not time to stop. Grab your towel, take sip of water, but don’t sit down! The workout isn’t over yet. For each step in a job map, you need to ask the following questions of your customers (1:1 interviews preferred but other approaches will work to):

  • What makes this step time-consuming or slow?
    • What makes it cumbersome or inconvenient
  • What makes this step problematic or challenging
    • What causes it to be inconsistent or go off track?
  • What makes this step ineffective or the output to be of poor quality?
    • What would the ideal result look like?
  • What makes one solution better, or worse than another when getting this step done? (Probe until a metric is found)

Just like the job statement, you are looking for a way to describe needs using a consistent structure and focus. The focal point is the job they are trying to get done and a specific step within that job. The need is the desired outcome that we search for when we ask these questions. The collection of desired outcomes should use the following format:

{Direction} + {Action Verb} + {Object of Action} + {Contextual Clarifier}

For example, while investigating the profitable market segment job from above, you hear…

I wish I didn’t have to sort through so much irrelevant market research

You translate this to…

Minimize the amount of irrelevant market research provided by consultants (or whomever)

For every job that you identify, you may find as many as 150 needs, all structured the same way. With this kind of structured output it becomes easy to turn needs into metrics. I’ll get into that in a subsequent post; in the meantime, here are some great places to do a deeper dive into this cutting edge subject.

Giving Customers a Fair Hearing – Tony Ulwick & Lance Bettencourt (MITSloan Management Review)

What Customers Want – Tony Ulwick of Strategyn

Service Innovation: How to Go from Customer Needs to Breakthrough Services – Lance Bettencourt of Service360 Partners

What is a Customer Need – Tony Ulwick (Powerpoint)

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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