Should You Listen to Your Customers' Needs or Do They Even Know What They Really Want? There is a difference between deeply understanding your customers by asking them what they want and doing exactly what they say.

By Alice Default

This story originally appeared on KISSmetrics

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." - Henry Ford

Henry Ford famously said that he invented the Ford T without asking for any feedback from his potential customers. According to him, people were not capable of thinking about radical innovation.

Since then, his words have sunk into the minds of many product teams that now deeply believe they should never listen to their customers. They're afraid it might slow their innovative thinking.

However, we might be misunderstanding his words. There is a difference between deeply understanding your customers by asking them what they want and doing exactly what they say. It's true that you shouldn't always give your customers what they ask you for.

But, fully understanding your customers and the challenges they face might just be the number one key to success as far as product development goes. In the end, customers are the ones who will decide whether to buy a product or not, so it's always a good idea to focus on them first.

But, how do you get to really understand your customers without quickly losing yourself in assumptions? This is where customer development comes in.

What Is Customer Development All About?

We are not trained to think about customers in a disciplined way. We have processes for product development, for sales, and for marketing. But, when it comes to our very own customers, we usually hide behind assumptions and guesses about what they need and want.

Customer development tries to fix that by pushing producers to understand customers as much as they understand the market they are in and the technologies they are using. The idea being that you need to build your product or service for people who are or will be truly passionate about it. To do that, you need to get out of your office and check all the theories you have about your product against reality. It's all about focusing on your customers.

The methodology is quite simple. Pick one customer that is or will be truly passionate about your product, build that product, and then iterate to improve it.

Zoom into Individual Groups of People

This will seem counterintuitive, but you need to start small to grow big. By creating a lot of value for a small and targeted group of people in a narrowly defined segment, you will be able to get people to become truly passionate about your product. And, once you have found these individuals who are passionate about what you're doing, you can use their traits and behaviors to construct your market segment from the individual up.

The idea is that every one of your customers will go through some variation of the steps in the following "Value Stream Discovery." But, while most producers focus on the beginning of the funnel (at the right of the graph) because they are looking to increase acquisitions, you should focus on the other end where there are people who already are passionate about what you're doing.

Should You Listen to Your Customers' Needs or Do They Even Know What They Really Want?

This will help you to always keep in mind the value your product creates for the actual people who are using it. And, this is not something you will be able to do if you are in search of a large addressable market.

Yes, large companies got large by creating value for lots of customers, but they didn't start that way. They succeeded when they discovered new value they could create for a targeted audience of customers who shared a common passion or pain. This is what you should aim to do, too.

Focus on People, Not on Personas

As Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits, authors of the Lean Entrepreneur, put it: Getting to know your customers is just like fishing. Any amateur fisher can catch fish once in a while with a bit of luck. But, professional fishers who have to bring back fish day in and day out need to truly understand the type of fish they are seeking to catch, including where it lives, how deep it goes, and what bait it likes.

The same goes for your customers. You can create general personas and jump to assumptions. You can know roughly who they are and the kinds of things they probably are dealing with. You'll be able to get a few customers to your product that way if you're lucky. But, you won't be able to connect with users on a larger scale if you don't understand who you are talking to.

Thus, the idea is not to create personas but to focus on the actual people who are or will be passionate about your product. The better you understand them, the more likely you are to build a product that not only addresses their need but also resonates at an emotional level.

How to Implement Customer Development

Here comes the tricky part. How do you actually implement customer development in your business? Here are the three steps you should follow:

  1. Start by truly understanding your customers.
  2. Build your customer focus.
  3. Merge product development and customer development.

1. Start by Truly Understanding Your Customers

The first step is to actually talk to your customers. Schedule a call with them or invite them for coffee and get to know them better than your competitors will. Keep in mind, though, that customers might not tell you what they want, not because they don't want to but because they don't know. (Remember Ford's faster horses?)

So, your goal is not to validate the solution you're offering, but rather to define the problem customers are facing. Ask them about their experiences and their challenges, what they are dealing with on a daily basis, and what could be better. Here are some sample questions you can ask:

  • What is the problem you are trying to solve? What is challenging you?
  • What is it about your current solution that is not satisfactory?

The advantage of talking to your customers is that you will be able to picture them using your product as you build it, compared with picturing your imaginary perfect customer using your product. (You know, the one who knows exactly what all the buttons do and where to find the hidden settings without anyone telling him or her about them.) This will help you make a product that is simpler and perfectly understandable by people outside of your team.

After you've gained a real understanding of the people using your product by interviewing them, you can scale up the process through wider customer surveysor by using customer analytics to understand how your customers are going through your funnel.

2. Build Your customer Focus

Once you have an idea of who your different customers are, you should start focusing on the one who is most passionate about your product. Make a list of his or her traits, behaviors, and personality characteristics. A great tool for this is theCustomer Zoom Tool built by Brant Cooper and Aaron Eden from Moves the Needle.

Should You Listen to Your Customers' Needs or Do They Even Know What They Really Want?

Use the tool to identify traits that are unique to your customer compared with others, as well as behaviors that he or she has and that you can observe. Once you have one specific customer in mind, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • What specifically will our product do that will satisfy our user?
  • How might we give our customers exactly what they want, and even more?
  • What specifically will our product do that will make our user passionate?

Afterward, you should be able to see new opportunities in your product that you didn't see before. At that point, it will be time to go to the next level and really make your research useful and think about the implications it may have for your company.

3. Merge Product Development and Customer Development

The last step in customer development is to connect it with your product development. Don't thinking of your company as a product-focused organization or a customer-focused organization. Be both!

You don't want to have your customers dictating your roadmap, but all the valuable insights you collect from them can feed your innovation and shape your product. Get inspired by them. Find what they are passionate about and work on that.

Who knows? If your customers tell you they want something as unimaginative as faster horses, and you are able to determine what they really need, you might end up inventing something as innovative as the car.

Alice Default

Head of Growth and Marketing at Front

Alice Default is the head of Growth and Marketing at Front, a shared inbox for teams. Front helps companies collaborate on the conversations they have with the outside world, through email, Twitter, and SMS.

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