Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Do Your Customers Really Want?

It is critical that your company deliver what your customers really want. But how do you know what the customer really wants?

Most people are familiar with the cartoon on the left showing a tire swing in its various realizations thorough the design process by various groups within a company, versus what the customer really wanted. It is all too easy for the customer’s needs to be subsumed by the desires of others within a company who interpret the customer needs through their own prism. What you often end up with is not what the customer wanted at all.

In sales-driven companies, product requirements often reflect a shopper’s mentality. Sales people see what customers are asking for today, that other companies are already providing, and say that’s what their customers want. This is really like driving by looking only through the rear-view mirror. You see where you’ve been, but have no idea of where you’re going, or should be going. When you deliver what sales has requested, not only is the customer disappointed, because they have already been able to get that product from others for some time, but by the time it’s delivered the sales people themselves are disappointed, because the view through the rear-view mirror has changed by then, and what they asked for is no longer what they want now.

In engineering-driven companies, what gets built is what the engineers think the customers want, shaped by the engineers perceptions and pre-conceptions. Engineers often are not really in touch with their customers. In fact, sales people often actively discourage putting the engineers in direct contact with their customers because they’re concerned that engineers will make blunt or impolitic comments to their customers, which may cast sales in an unfavorable light. So in most cases engineers don’t really have a good perspective of what the customers really want. Further, engineers are generally enamored of the technologies they are using and designing, and want to be able to showcase their technology to the world to say, “Behold world, see what I can do!” The result is very often a severe disappointment for the customer, giving them a product far more complex than they really want with lots of bells and whistles they don’t need (see The Inmates Are Running the Asylum! and How Do I Get This D@#% Thing To Work?).

In marketing-driven (not market-driven) companies, what gets defined is marketing’s view of what the customers want. This is generally a mix of sales-driven and engineering-driven information, with marketing’s own twist on these perspectives based on market research they have conducted. This may often be better than either sales- or engineering- based perspectives alone. However, it often does not reflect a true customer-driven component, and, like the tire swing cartoon example, reflects a distorted view of what the customer really wants.

What is required is for the company to be market-driven. That is, the company must actively talk with current and prospective customers about what they will want by the time the product will come out. Not what they want today, although that information is certainly valuable. Not what they will want in 3 to 5 years, although that information is also valuable. But what they will want in the timeframe it will actually take to develop and produce the product. You want the product to address current needs, and to be able to evolve easily to future needs, so current and future needs should be reflected in the design efforts. In fact, if some of the future needs can be incorporated sooner, so much the better. It is also essential for everyone in the company to really understand what they're being asked to build and what they're role is in making this happen (see Does Everyone Really Understand?). But what is really critical is to be able to address the needs the customer will have when the product becomes available. You want to deliver what your customer really wants!

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