Overcome The Challenge Of Articulating What Customers Want

One of the great things about my job is that I get to talk to lots of different people; I also get asked some great questions, which I try to answer! So on Friday, when talking about articulating customer needs in a Market Requirements Document, I was asked the simple question, ‘What are we meant to do when even our customers don’t know what they want?’ I was stumped for an answer.

Naturally it got me thinking, ‘what do you do when your customer does not know what they want or need?’ Do you plough ahead, get into solution mode and assume your customer s don’t know what they want? Or do you spend enormous amounts of time and effort squeezing requirements out of your customer, in a time poor world?

Firstly, I think we must ask this question. ‘Is it possible that a customer does not know exactly what they want?’ My guess is – absolutely. However, does this mean we should plough ahead and build a product or enhance an existing one? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Whilst customers may not know EXACTLY what they want, I think they are aware when their expectations are not being met or when they are not exactly 100% satisfied with what they getting. So here are 3 tips to help you overcome the challenge of articulating what customers want.

Speaking the same language

Sounds obvious but if you are dealing with a technical product such as software, you are probably correct in saying that some customers may not know what they need – from a technical perspective. Therefore they probably will never be able to tell you to code the product in C++. However, what they can tell you, in customer jargon, is how they feel when using a product, its colours, design and what they can or can’t use.

Identifying the type of information you need

So you’ve established what language you are going to talk in – customer jargon. You next you need to make sure that you are prepared when seeking customer feedback.

It is unrealistic to think that the question, ‘what do you like and dislike about the product?’ will enable you to write a Market Requirements document! So put together a list of features of the product and tailor your questions around them. So for a high tech product, you may wish to ask, ‘How do you find the speed of the application?’ or ‘How many concurrent users will be using this application’.

The key here is to be prepared, have some structure to your investigation and to collate your customer comments. The overall objective of this exercise is to understand your customers’ expectations when they interact with your product.

Establishing the Gap

Finally, it’s about establishing the customer satisfaction gap* by comparing the customer expectations about the product with the actual product performance. From this ‘audit’, it is far easier to establish if a new product is required or if enhancements can be made to an existing product. In addition, new ideas can often be discovered through this process, therefore enabling the opportunity to enter into new markets, broaden existing product lines or even establish a new product lines.

So whilst customers may not know exactly what they want, I think it is dangerous to conclude or assume that they don’t know anything about what they want or need. Equally important, (particularly when dealing with technical products) is making sure that as Product Managers, we are not asking the customers how to best solve the problem or build the product but rather asking them what they want in your product.

* Source: Strategic Marketing, 6th Edition – David W. Cravens

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