August 5, 2019 8:49:00 AM EDT

Understanding and Meeting Customer Needs

Marketing & Innovation

Understanding and Meeting Customer Needs

Clayton Christensen, the business guru and Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, notes that of the 30,000 new products launched each year for consumers approximately 95% of them end up failing. That’s a high rate of failure by any measure. While nobody who launches a new or improved product wants to be in that 95%, it is often difficult to know which steps are best to take to improve your odds of success.

A good place to start is asking, ’Does our product or service meet identifiable customer wants and needs?’ Many organizations turn to extensive formal market research to find an answer to this question. This can be very helpful, but an often-overlooked step is first getting out and talking to your customers. If you want to find out whether you’re meeting your customers' wants and needs, who better to ask than the people using your product or service?

Listening to Customers’ Needs

Christensen’s jobs-to-be-done framework prompts meaningful internal questions and answers for your organization, which are derived directly from your customer base. Your customers help you identify their needs and wants, allowing you to work backwards to create the right product or service. This product or service is then correctly aligned with your core target segments.

Even for existing products, it’s good to talk to your customers regularly to ensure that you’re fulfilling their wants and needs and understanding their preferences. Customers may not realize it, but they purchase products and services in the same way that companies hire employees. Going back to Christensen’s framework, when there’s a job that needs to be done, you interview different candidates to fulfill that job in the best way possible, then you make an informed decision.

For example, let’s say a customer has a lawn that needs to be well kept. They look for a lawn mower to fill that job, but it doesn’t stop at that level. Just as with hiring a candidate, people do not usually pick the first serviceable lawn mower they come across. And, of course, there are other details and factors that may have an impact. For instance, a riding mower might be required for a larger lawn. Or, perhaps the yard is small enough for a push mower. These are the kind of concerns that go through your customers’ heads as they choose which items to purchase to fulfill their needs.

What Motivates a Customer?

A first step to take: find out which questions your customer is asking during their “interview” with your product or service. In other words, what are the most important factors in their decision? Like most products, price, quality, and convenience are high on customers’ lists. Determining which factor “wins” depends on the product, the person, and the context.

To illustrate the point even further, convenience will be the winning factor in my choice of where to get gas for my car almost every time. Gas is a commodity that functions the same regardless of whether the brand is Exxon or Chevron. As with many other drivers, I will pay more per gallon at a nearby station to avoid driving out of my way.

Now, of course, a little brand loyalty certainly plays a role in all of this (e.g., someone with a Shell credit card may drive to a Shell station), but it is hardly a compelling influence on purchase decisions in the aggregate. Abstracting this a level above buying gasoline, we arrive at a couple of questions you can ask your customer. First, what’s driving people to consider your product or service? Next, once purchased, is the product meeting their needs and wants as expected?

Collecting Customer Feedback

A customer will rarely stop to put helpful information in a suggestion box. What’s more, if you fail to provide something as simple a suggestion box, it’s even less likely that the customer will call you to tell you why they like your product.

Unfortunately, most people only reach out to talk to you when they are unsatisfied. To find out why they are satisfied, you must reach out to them. You can do this with methods such as surveys, direct phone calls, focus groups, and social media. The important points are to be sincere in your questions, ask only questions you truly want to know the answer to, and respect the answer.

If you have a storefront, it’s not a bad idea to plant someone on-site to ask customers why they are making specific purchases. You need to have conversations with your customers—as many as you can. In addition to learning how to make and sell products that answer their wants and needs, you’re also building a relationship with customers and fostering loyalty to your brand. People like to give their opinions and they’ll remember when you ask for them.

How you capture the customer feedback is important to help drive the application of the learnings most effectively. There are several tools that help to bring customer needs and feedback to life. Two tools I always use are 1) Empathy Maps/Personas and 2) Customer Journey Maps (also often called Experience Flows). You can download our guide to journey mapping, which provides tips, a real-life example, and an editable template.

As an entrepreneur, manager, or business owner, you must anticipate the customer’s response to your product or service. A lot of this anticipation is based on intuition, but it is critical for your intuition to be grounded in customer testimonials and other such data. To succeed in the market, you need to make your business decisions more than a guessing game and keep a pulse on what customers need and want by talking to them.

Customer Journey Mapping Guide

Michele is Aspirant's Director of Marketing & Innovation, and is a senior marketer and facilitator with 25 years of extensive experience in brand management, strategy development, Design Thinking, and innovation. She works with various corporations and non-profit businesses as a consultant to help them grow their business through strong strategy, marketing plans, and skills development. She has worked with companies in the Fortune 100 and Global 1000 as well as mid-sized companies in a range of industries, with a focus on healthcare.

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