Oswald Letter

You won’t know what your customers want if you don’t ask

by Dan Oswald

Knowing what your customers want and need and delivering it are key concepts for any business. But how do you really know what your customers want?

The first person I worked for after graduating from college knew exactly what his customers wanted and needed. He had that knowledge because he once held the same position as every one of his customers. His company served nonprofit executives who provided a very specific service. He knew exactly what they needed to be successful because he had been in their position. Like many entrepreneurs, he started his company to fill a need that was going unmet—one he knew well because it was a daily obstacle to getting his job done as a nonprofit executive. His knowledge of his customers helped him succeed.

But my first boss didn’t stop there. We were constantly talking to our customers. Before launching any new product, we would do phone surveys (this was in the days before the Internet) with dozens of professionals who were part of our target audience. We would visit potential customers at their place of work to talk and observe. We even had advisory boards made up of members of the target audience who were willing to provide advice and feedback and even test products before they were rolled out. My boss’ fraternity of former colleagues turned into a gold mine of ideas and product improvements.

Steve Jobs once famously said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Jobs subscribed to the “don’t ask what your customers want; tell them what they want” philosophy. Entrepreneurs who, out of either arrogance or necessity, want to ignore what their customers are telling them often pull out this quote.

Well, you’re not Steve Jobs. I think we all can agree that he was more the exception than the rule. He wasn’t just creating products; he was creating products that changed industries and even how we live.

One more thing about Jobs: He was creating new consumer electronics products. That may seem like stating the obvious, and it is. But the industry was evolving so fast that by the time you asked your customers what they wanted or needed and developed it, it was probably obsolete. Add to that the fact that Jobs was creating products that fulfilled wants and needs that many never knew they had. Did you ever think you could look up the winner of the 1923 World Series on your phone while sitting at a bar in Anchorage, Alaska? Now you can! (It was the New York Yankees, by the way.)

So we’ve established that you’re not Steve Jobs, and I hope you’re thinking that talking to your customers might not be a bad way to make sure your products or services meet their needs. And just when I have you considering taking time to talk to customers, you discover that Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” He sounds a lot like Jobs on the subject of talking to customers. Two of the most iconic entrepreneurs in our country’s history bad-mouthed the idea of talking to customers.

But hold on just a minute. Ford did know what his customers wanted. He knew they wanted to get from point A to point B faster, and he probably knew there were more comfortable ways to travel than on the back of a 1,000-pound animal. How did he know that? First, in all likelihood, he represented his own customers. He also had to travel from point A to point B, as nearly everyone does. But he also would have had to hear it from countless travelers who had arrived at their destinations hot, dusty, and tired from riding horseback.

Here’s the key: Ford didn’t ask what the solution was; he asked what the problem was. The problem was that travelers couldn’t get to places as fast as they would have liked. Sure, had he asked his customers for the solution, faster horses may have been their answer. When you talk to customers, you don’t ask them what product they want or what features they’re looking for. You ask them what problems they have. You want to know what keeps them up at night, what prevents them from getting their job done, and what makes life difficult for them.

Then it’s your job to solve the problem. Don’t ask customers to solve it. If they knew how to solve the problem, they wouldn’t have it any longer or they would be in business for themselves getting other people to pay them to solve the problem. Ask what they need, but you determine what the solution is.

In the end, I think there’s truth in what Jobs and Ford both said. You don’t ask your customers for the solution to the problem or how to design your product. You ask what problems they need solved and what would make their lives easier, and then you design your product to solve the problem in the most user-friendly way possible. Seems simple, but it’s not. It all starts with talking to your customers.