Finding out what your customer needs

February 1, 2011 | By More

The phrase “listening to your customer” is often heard but seldom understood. It is important to find out what your customer thinks of your idea or product as early as possible.  The question is ‘when is the best time to do it?’ Many teams wait till they have completed the product – by which time it is often too late if adverse feedback is received.

Also often heard is: “The customer doesn’t know what they want.” This is often used to justify why it is a waste of time to spend the time and money to solicit market feedback. This is a mistake.

Just because they cannot tell you what features you should design into your product does not mean they cannot identify what is important for them. They’re not the designers or engineers and cannot speak your language – you are, and it is your job. They’re consumers, they use your product. Ask them how they will use it if they had it.

Customers may not be able to tell you what they want, but they certainly know what they want

Ask any woman at a shopping mall what kind of handbag they want to buy and eight times out of ten they will not be able to tell you what they want. In her mind, she may be looking for something with ‘super slouchy leather that is soft but durable and scratch resistant, medium sized, functional for everyday use and perfect for a fun night out, pockets on both sides for cell phone and keys’ and so on.

Getting it right can be very rewarding

But she is also looking for what is fashionable, matches her personality, within her budget, etc – and until she goes out to see the shop displays, browses fashion magazines and spends time around town, she will not be able to tell you what she wants! In this case, along with the price and utility aspects of the bag, understanding fashion sense is key, but most nebulous, to the product design criteria.

Technology products are no different. You may have developed a very innovative, even patented, content management system(CMS). As you start developing it, you also need to have a very good idea how current CMS is used today, who they are, what are their strengths and why their customers are using them, what problems are left unaddressed, new market challenges, and a host of other criteria along with your own value add.   After all, they are your potential customers too.

Through that feedback, you can refine your design early, before you release the first version. The earlier you are able to obtain the market information, the quicker you make corrections to your idea (and design) and the more robust your overall solution will be.

The later in the design process you make changes to your product, the harder it is to make them — and the costlier it is to implement in terms of time and money. There is a rule of thumb in the industry about the cost of changes:

  • if you make the change at prototype stage the cost of the change will be 10X compared to catching it at design stage;
  • when the production line is up, the change will be 100X compared to design stage;
  • and once the product is released, making any changes will be really costly, at least 1000X the cost if you made it at design stage.

Not a recommended way to get free publicity

It is estimated that it cost Toyota US$2 billion in 2010 to recall their cars with a suspected software problem to its brakes!

Finding out what your customer wants isn’t simply asking them questions about what they think of your product. Before you can even ask them, you need to know who you want to ask the questions to. Randomly picking people to question will get you nowhere.

Understand the situation they are in, their environment, their business and climate (in the case of commercial customers), problems they are facing, and so on and on. Only then when you pose the questions, will the answers they give you provide a glimpse of what they are telling you and what they mean. It is then up to you do decide how to sort out all the answers they give you.

Yes, “the customer is always right” – and it is your responsibility to understand what she means!

More about this topic later.

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Category: Developing your product, Marketing your product, What's Next?

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About the Author ()

EngTong, pioneer and innovator. Graduated from Imperial College London with an MBA from Cranfield School of Management. Lived in Scotland, England, California, Beijing and led teams in Italy, France, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia to do the impossible. Now based in Singapore and believes the future is to blend the sophistication of western management practices with the strength of Asian Values. Trained as a Chartered Engineer. Member of IET, Associate of City and Guilds and a certified SixSigma Champion.

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