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What customers want – and why you should never ask

never ask what customers wantMost companies have more new product ideas than they have people to pursue them, but half still struggle with new products that underperform in the market. So how can you identify the most important new product ideas – the ones that customers want and will buy?

How do you know what customers want?

The simple answer is to ask them. But most of the time, it’s also the wrong answer. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do ample customer interview work as part of new product development. Just the opposite—in fact , you should complete much of that work before you spend any of your constrained resources on new product development. It’s just that what customers think they want usually isn’t what they actually need and what they end up buying. But that’s not their fault. It’s not their job to know what they need.

When I worked in the polymer industry, we had a pigment-manufacturing customer that came to us asking for the lowest molecular weight polymer that we could make. Without asking anything further, the lab could have simply whipped up a sample. But the technical service person on the account knew better and asked what he was trying to accomplish. The customer explained that he thought that would give him more color from his pigment. It turned out that his working model was 180 degrees from the science – what he needed was just the opposite of what he asked for.

Now, this customer wasn’t stupid—far from it. It’s just that when he told us what he wanted he was straying outside of his expertise. After all, he was a pigment chemist, not a polymer physicist. He knew he wanted more color, but trying to design the right dispersant to do that was not his expertise.

So how do you know what customers need?

The answer is not as simple as just asking, but there are a couple of things you can do to find out:

Observe your customers in action – Ethnography is the science of observing users in action. Grounded in anthropology, this method helps innovators find the workarounds that users must employ; the obstacles that make their work harder; and the tedious, dirty and time-consuming jobs they would like eliminated. SC Johnson & Son watched users deal with the nasty job of cleaning toilets to come up with its Scrubbing Bubbles® flushable toilet scrubbing wands. This product was designed after seeing the lengths users went to try and avoid touching anywhere around the bowl or the brush.

Ask customers high-gain questions – Voice of the customer is a well-meaning approach that many companies use to identify new product requirements. However, it asks customers to talk about their issues in their language. Unfortunately, this often leads to translation issues when their comments are converted into product requirements—A frequent source of confusion.

Alternatively, in his book, What Customers Want, Anthony Ulwick suggests a different approach. Simply, ask customers what they want to maximize and what they want to minimize. This approach moves the customer from talking about the design of your product (like the molecular weight in the earlier example) and gets them talking about their needs. Most importantly, it does so in a language that your engineers and designers understand. Some examples:

  1. Painting contractors want to minimize the time they have to wait between coats of paint.
  2. Building designers want to minimize the space that physical equipment (heating, air conditioning, etc.) takes up in a building.
  3. Aircraft operators want to minimize time between maintenance overhauls.
  4. High-performance car enthusiasts want to maximize traction.

Of course, there will often be contradictory objectives. But, that’s a good thing. Those contradictions can point to the need for innovation and show you where new opportunities may lie. For example, while the car enthusiasts want to maximize traction, they also want to maximize tire life. Normally, the softer rubber compounds needed for maximum traction dramatically sacrifice tread life. There’s a huge opportunity for any new technology that can move the curve describing tread life vs. traction. Of course, the same opportunity exists for traction vs. fuel efficiency.

The Simple Bottom Line

Customers often don’t know what they want and asking can lead your new product development astray. Instead, focus on understanding what customers need by watching them in action and asking what they want to maximize and what they want to minimize.

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