How to know what your customers want (when your customers don’t know what they want)

In one of my very first jobs, I worked at a gas station. Once I made a mistake at something, and although I can’t remember the mistake itself, I remember my boss asking me: “If you didn’t know how to do it, why didn’t you ask?”

It was the most ridiculous question I’d ever heard because I didn’t know that I didn’t know or else I would have asked! I was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, I just did it incorrectly. There was no way for me to know that I was doing it incorrectly and, therefore, there was no reason to ask. As soon as the error occurred, I asked. But my boss couldn’t wrap his brain around that.

Our customers face a similar conundrum: They know they have a problem or need and, in order to search out a solution, they look for what they think is the best solution. But it’s not always the best solution. And that’s why Henry Ford famously said, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said ‘a faster horse’.”

I see this in my own business: When I write for a client, I frequently hear something like, “we need to have more content in more social media.” But that’s not true. Businesses don’t need to access ALL social media to be successful. They need to say the right things to the right people in the right social media.

All businesses see some type of customer response like this. The customer does their best to figure out what solution is needed based on their perceptions of the problem. But maybe their perceptions of the problem are completely wrong! Or maybe the solution they believe they need is completely inadequate.

Dutch consultant Robbert-Jan Van Oeveren wrote a great blog post about uncovering what our customers are really after (even if they don’t know it themselves). He talks about how today’s businesses have the opportunity to put the customer at the heart of their organizations, and he offers some ideas (and a very useful graphic) to describe what businesses must do to understand what customers want.

Use Van Oeveren’s blog post as a starting point to rethink what your customers want. In fact, move beyond just thinking about customers and consider everyone in your sales funnel: Are you communicating to people at each stage of your sales funnel in a way that connects with what they are REALLY looking for?

Read Van Oeveren’s blog post here: Designthinking: How to convert need into demand. [EDIT 14 MONTHS LATER: Van Oeveren’s website is returning a 404 Not Found status. I’m keeping my blog post up because I think there is still value in the content but Van Oeveren’s content is no longer accessible.]

Aaron Hoos

Aaron Hoos is a writer, strategist, and investor who builds and optimizes profitable sales funnels. He is the author of The Sales Funnel Bible and he's a real estate investor and a copywriter for real estate investors.

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