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Qi3 Insight

Are Customer Needs a Red Herring?





By Robin Higgons

Conventional B2B marketing wisdom tells us that we should always find out what customer needs are and focus marketing / product strategies on meeting those needs. While the logic is impeccable, I find that the approach is deeply flawed in practice.

Experience shows that customers will give good feedback on improvements to current products – tweaks, usability, performance improvements, etc, but that it is all incremental stuff, and rarely leads to insights that enable marketers to develop innovative product concepts (new or next generation) that create or maintain market leadership. Why? Well, customers often can’t see outside the picture that has been painted for them of your company’s capabilities. Their perceptions of the needs with which you can help them is highly coloured by the products and capabilities your company already has. Therefore, they can only come up with incremental needs and improvements.

As a result, looking at needs given by the customer is a red herring. Instead, marketers should focus on what customers or users want to do or achieve, and how your product can help in ways that become compelling. This is not necessarily intuitive, so let me give a practical example.

In one project I undertook on scientific instrumentation, all the feedback from customers was about resolution, sensitivity, and throughput. However, when we started asking about what the user did with the data, who the user’s customer was, and how we could make their life easier, a whole range of issues came out of the woodwork, such as set-up time, ease of use, report writing. As a result, we brought in experts to reconfigure workflow, computer games developers to transform usability, and surveyed the customers’ customer to understand key reporting issues. The result was a new product that took 40% market share in less than three years.

The key question for any marketer should be: “how can we help the customer to do their job better” rather than asking them what they need.

Robin works for a wide range of companies helping them develop new markets and solve issues arising as the result of changing market conditions. If you would like to discuss his thoughts above or other such issues in your business, please contact him on robin.higgons@qi3.co.uk or 01223 422404.

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