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9 Proven ways to find unmet customer needs

Nine ways to uncover unmet new product needsIf your organization’s growth is constrained by not generating enough valuable new opportunities, you need to either improve the quantity or the quality of your time in the marketplace (or potential marketplace).

Once you are out there, here are nine ways to find unmet needs that you might be able to solve.

1. Ask people what their biggest problem is – What’s their Excedrin headache? You can qualify it to an area where you might be able to help (e.g. what’s your biggest problem with your current approach to …)

2. Probe about workarounds – Can you develop a product or service that eliminates the workaround?

3. Ask what their single biggest limitation to selling more is – Is there something you can do to help them get more out of a constrained process – either more units of the same value or same number of higher value units?

4. Ask what’s changing in their business and marketplace – like Wayne Gretzky said, “Skate to where the puck is going to be.” Are the changes they are facing creating any limitations or problems you might be able to address. What force is causing that change?

5. Watch people doing their job – Do you see any odd behavior, actions, or behavior caused by limitations of the products, processes, or services that they are using today?

6. Ask about muda – If they aren’t a Lean shop, they won’t know that you’re talking about waste. So ask them about the most frustrating waste they see in their operation – what new product ideas might that lead you to?

7. Follow the money – Ask where is the working capital tied up in their operation? Is there any way you could create a product or service that would free up some of that cash?

8. Ask their customers – Okay, this one requires some delicacy. But a good understanding of the value chain is a critical if you want to add value in the strongest way possible – by helping them increase sales throughput. You could even ask their other suppliers – at least the ones that you don’t compete with.

9. Ask their competitors – Why not? You’re not going to share competitive information, but the more complete a picture you can get of the industries unmet needs the better your chances of coming up with one you might be able to address.

Of course you may notice that asking them what they want is not on the list – here’s why.

What can you add to this list?


{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Jorge Morell January 21, 2011, 3:04 am

    Hi Mike,
    Congratulations for the list to find unmet needs. Nowadays it is the key for the success.
    I give you some ideas:
    – What are your weaknesses? What is it, that within your company or in marketplace, produces this effect?
    – Where is the most attractive market? Why not get to him?
    -If you start again your business, what would you change in your business?
    – Ask your team, the people in your organization, workers at the production line,…. The best ideas tend to be inside but do not emerge.
    – Ask your suppliers. Follow their most popular products or services. (As you wrotte, the banks are suppliers too!)
    – What product give your greatest benefits? And of course, do not analyze with traditional cost accounting.
    -Why do your the good customers buy your services? Surely they have identified unmet needs.
    -If you would give your current services for free (the sales departments are obsessed to sell cheaper), if you were Google, where did you would get your benefits?

  • Rich McDonnell January 22, 2011, 4:12 pm

    Possible additions to your list might include the following questions:
    1) What needs (very important), desires (somewhat important), or preferences nice to have), do you have that currently are not being met by your suppliers?
    2) Please explain your motive or goals in seeking these?
    3) What are the key technologies that the company thinks will drive future market growth?
    4) If you are selling B2B Industrial Products….Determine what unmet needs the customer may have in terms of your components, assemblies, subsystems, and/or integrated solutions.
    5) Determine which markets / segments / application areas the customer believes are growing the fastest at present and which are expected to experience the strngest growth in the future.

    If I qualify as a top contributor, I would greatly appreciate receiving a ‘signed’ copy of your book.

  • Andy Beaulieu January 24, 2011, 10:22 pm

    If you take as a truth that all your customer’s important needs are already being met, then the approach changes a bit. First, yo uneed to understand how they are meeting their needs now, and then why they are using that approach. In this scenario, overt questions may not reveal the real reasons. I borrow from the field of ethnography here (see James Spradley’s excellent work, Participant Observation) to outline some dimensions for observation and investigation into why a need is being satisfied as it currently is:
    – How do they satisfy the need now? How long have they been satisfying the need the way they are now? What do they say about why they approach the need that way?
    – What exactly is happening when they satisfy the need? What are the behaviors exhibited?
    – What are all the outcomes from satisfying the need the way they do now? What are the other consequences?
    – Does satisfying the need as they do now also support a social need? A political need? An economic need?
    – Does satisfying the need as they do now somehow avoid risk? Does it minimize conflict?

    In social settings, often the way something is done is not purely a product of rational (economic) thinking, but a conglomeration of factors, many of them latent, unspoken, unknown to the actors, and tangential to the situation at hand. Often, a new (better) way to meet a need is evaluated in terms of the potential loss of these other benefits when the old approach is replaced.

  • Geoff Barbaro February 8, 2011, 5:00 pm

    Let me add a classic to the list – Deep Listening, the most underused skill in business!

    I also like using storytelling sessions. Pick a theme of the week (eg coffee cups) and spend a lunch hour listening and telling stories. Amazing how many opportunities you can identify.

    Cheers, geoff

    • Michael A. Dalton February 9, 2011, 9:48 am

      Geoff – can you say a little bit more about how you’d use story telling to uncover customer needs?

      • Geoff Barbaro February 11, 2011, 6:50 pm

        Michael, I posted a big long reply on Thursday but obviously something went wrong. Rather than repeat it, I’ll hit the high points.

        For anyone interested in storytelling as a corporate tool, your starting points are two books by Stephen Denning, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling and The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management. Excellent, practical and effective tips backed up by thorough research.

        Think of listening to a radio station at home. What stories of good and bad experiences do you have? Around a lunch table one day someone tells their story of how annoying it is to have to turn down or mute the radio when the phone rings. Sometimes you forget to take the remote with you, sometimes you have to get to the system.

        From this you could potentially get:
        Bluetooth manufacturers create multiple connections allowing your home entertainment system, computer and phone all to be linked, allowing you to play music off your phone through your HE system and amplifier, but also cutting all sound from any source when the phone rings.
        Furniture manufacturer puts speaker and microphone systems in headrests, or easy storage areas for remotes and mobile phones, or even push button controls for muting in all furniture that connects to current systems.
        Cooking utensil companies put phone answering controls into chopping blocks so people can answer their phones without having to wash their hands while doing food preparation.

        Some of these ideas are here now, some probably uneconomical, but a simple story can get people thinking.

        Cheers, geoff

  • William McCann Murphy February 9, 2011, 4:02 am

    For me it’s simple..
    Listen to your customers
    Listen to your employees
    Listen to the crowd…

    Have a process that allows you to capture capture ideas, colloborate and ultimately link the filtered & recognised needs to the Strategic focus of the business.

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