What Do Customers Know?

June 21, 2009

By Doug Powell, Senior Vice President, Wachovia

The Customer: Part II of III

What’s your favorite product? What’s your least favorite product? Why? We’re all customers and we all like to think that we know something about something, right? In Part I: “Knowing your Limits,” I noted how important it is to talk to the customer and that if we don’t we’re liable, and likely guaranteed, to develop functions in our products that customers don’t want and miss functionality that they do want. Talking to customers is an essential part of building quality into our products and services.

“But wait,” you say. “I’m a professional in my field, have years of experience, I do talk to customers and I know the industry. I know what customers want.” Really? OK. And I’m not calling into question anyone’s experience and intelligence—the business world is full of smart, hardworking people who know their business. Besides, almost everyone at some time or another has said the phrase “Customers don’t know what they want!”

Is this true? It might be. There’s sometimes an element of truth in a generalization like this… so let’s say it’s true. Customers don’t know what they want. There, I’ve said it and we should all feel better knowing that I’ve laid it out there for anyone to read. Fortunately, it’s not the customer’s business to know what they want. Customers have entirely too much to do focusing on their core business. Instead, it’s our responsibility to create products and services for them to use. In fact, the customer actually knows something MUCH more valuable than what they want. What is it?

If you’re like me, you’ve been on your fair share of planes. I remember working for IBM several years back and hearing about the ‘privilege’ of flying for the company. “Bring the spouse, wear a business suit and drink some champagne.” How about today? Does flying feel like a privilege to you? If not, why? Let me guess, it starts with standing in line at the counter, then you have to pay to check a bag (I hate that), followed by a long wait in a security line where you have to take off your shoes (maybe your belt), put your valuables IN your laptop bag then take your laptop OUT of your laptop bag (while waiting for the person in front of you who always seems to be in the middle of their first trip). Oh, and don’t forget to keep your boarding pass with you going through the security gate (which they just looked at 5 feet behind you). You get to ‘re-dress’ on the other side and then get on the plane. Flying cross-country? Thanks to the pull-back in flight schedules, your plane is packed, so you may have to curb check the bag you didn’t pay $15 for (funny how it’s free when they NEED you to check your bag). Finally, you have to pay for everything from a soft drink to a pre-packaged cold meal. Sound familiar?

OK, OK, enough. What is it that I know as a customer of the air-travel industry? Not what I want…in fact, I don’t truly know what the right experience is that minimizes the pain of travel while mitigating the security risks of flying! What I’ve been sharing with you for the last paragraph is the pain that I experience as a result of flying. I don’t think that there’s an industry in existence that has strayed farther from the customer experience than the airlines and their regulators. What’s more, it’s not my job to solve the problem! Let’s say you design airplanes, build buildings or create million dollar software. Have you flown on one of your own planes, worked in one or your own buildings or professionally used the software you create? If not, though you may know your industry and a lot about the commodity features that are fundamental requirements for customer acceptance, you are likely missing out on a golden opportunity to put the finishing touches on your products and differentiate what your offer from competitors. Knowing your customer’s pain directly by speaking to them makes you the one responsible for providing solutions, a special opportunity to solve the problems that no other company in your industry knows about. You have the secret information that every product designer searches for already sitting on your plane, in one of your buildings or at a desk using the program you’ve created.

Better yet, they may use your competitor’s products. It’s common practice for customers to tell ANYONE that will listen about the problems they are experiencing with the products they use everyday. You can bet that if they tell you about problems with your competitor’s products, they’ll be just as happy to tell your competitors about yours. Lucky for you, your competitors probably aren’t talking to their customers either or, if they are, it’s only a sales person who gets a lot of other complaints and they all wash together.

Let’s say you believe all of this and decide to spend more time talking with your customers. GREAT! What do you talk about? Focus on their daily processes and where your product fits in. Understand where they have staff manually working on things that are shortcomings of products they already use. Be sure to validate the fundamentals, to ensure the market hasn’t changed! Most importantly, don’t only focus on the feature/functionality of your products! Remember that someone in Sales has to sell your product, your customer will have to go through your implementation process and then, when something goes wrong, will have to call your company for support!

Ask about pricing or at least talk about value. It’s OK! If you set the stage as an R&D session, not a contractual obligation, you can see where manual processes equal overhead dollars for your customer. Elimination of manual work can translate into revenue for you. The customer can help you understand the value of the solution once you know their pain. Ask them about other implementations with your (or a competitor) company’s products. Find out where their pain points are and design for good implementation. Finally, find out how the customer prefers to deal with customer service. You can be the one who creates a great product that is ALSO easy to sell, implement and support!

There are many side benefits to talking to the customer as well…see you in Part III.

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