Our customers don’t know what they want

I was having my car serviced the other day. It wasn’t a regular service, but a manufacturer’s recall meaning that I didn’t have to pay for it. Still I had to arrange an appointment and drive to the garage to get it done. As it was a good 45 minutes drive away, I decided to wait at the garage whilst the work was being done.

As I was waiting I sat in a designated waiting area studying various “customer satisfaction survey” results and improvements the dealership have recently implemented. Many struck me as superficial and target-driven rather than reflecting true consideration for the customer. Sure enough I was about to experience a confirmation of my hypothesis in action.

After a good hour had passed, a service assistant (probably called a Service Executive, judging by everyone else’s titles prominently displayed on their desks) came to let me know that the work was nearly complete and that the car would be ready in a few minutes as it was just being cleaned. Some 20 minutes later I was handed back the keys and told that in return for my trouble of driving over and spending my Saturday morning at the garage I had my car fixed and cleaned as well. Somewhat perplexed I set off. Did I feel like a satisfied customer grateful to have the extra benefit of a cleaned car? Were the scores on the board likely to go up as a result? Clearly the dealership think that a courteous wash is a desirable service to their customers. Perhaps for many, even most of their customers, it is. Sadly nobody asked me for in fact I would have much preferred to drive back home in an unwashed car twenty minutes earlier and spend more time with my family instead.

This exemplifies a general trend I still see in software development organisations, as well as in many service organisations, of doing what we think is best for our customers. The common adage is often recalled that “customers don’t know what they want” as an excuse to not engage with the customers or ask them anything. We seem to have a strong support for that point of view – in the words of the late Steve Jobs “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”.

Only the full Job’s quote was this: “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”. You would be mistaken if you took from this that Apple didn’t do market research or didn’t talk to their customers. In fact, they do it all the time and get frequent feedback on the direction of their products. Of course they don’t expect their customers to make the few important strategic decisions about the product design but they make sure that they get as much information from their customers as they can.

I agree, if you went and outright asked people what is it that they want you are unlikely to receive a practical answer that will provide you with the ideas or innovation you are looking for. It would be a bit like asking your customers to do your job for you. No, instead it is your task to figure out how to build what the customers need or want. It is also your task to understand what it really is that the customer wants or think they wants. It is your job to talk to them, engage with them, observe them, interview them, follow them, shop with them or cook with them if that’s what it takes. What you are looking for are the unique insights about your customers that will allow you to build a new, innovative and successful product for them. In fact, your customers are the only people who are able provide you with these insights and most of the time, there will be no way for you to guess the answer.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the early days of Ford and the T model that would come in any colour their customers wanted as long as it was black. Well, it turned out General Motors decided to take the risk of engaging with their customers and offered a selection of colours from the DuPont range to them as an alternative eventually overtaking Ford.

The bottom line is that we should still do more to engage with our customers; we should go and find them and then talk to them; we must remember customers are outside our organisations; when we assume we know what they want, we may find ourselves behind the curve.

So when was the last time you have talked to your customer*?

* Speaking to your Product Owner does not count, they are not your customer (usually).

Related content