What do customers really want? Hint: They don’t know.

Once again, it was almost 10 pm and my pack of peanut M&Ms was empty. The last shop would soon close, so there would be no tortellini-pesto for me today.  I rested my head on my keyboard,  taking a break from the huge Excel list that contained all the features my customers wanted. They all wanted conflicting things and I couldn’t see how to get out of this situation. My boss kept telling me that it was our customers  who were paying for my salary, not him, so I had to listen to them.

There had to be a better way. But which one?

It turned out that this product would become another best compromise — not a bad product, but a bland one. Not a failure, but not a success either. It took me several similarly painful experiences to understand the insights of my job as Product Manager. And it had nothing to do with being a simple compiler of my customers’ wishes or finding the best compromise.

Here are the first three of my five product management insights.

Insight 1° Your customers don’t know what they want
You know the answer Henry Ford supposedly got when he asked people what they needed? “Faster horses.”
Out of the blue, people cannot say what they want or need. At best, they’re able to give you a long list of wishes which, when put into action, will trigger the reaction ‘Yes, this is what I said but it is not what I actually meant’.

Insight 2° Start from an existing product
“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research,” said Steve Jobs. So give your clients a starting point they know (ex: your existing product or competitor’s product) and build from there. Use screen shots, drawings or sketches, anything that makes it as tangible as possible. The aim here is for users to be able to envision themselves using the product down the line. Your job here is to listen to customers’ reactions, what they say and what they do. Read they faces and expressions.

Insight 3° Your customers don’t know what they’ll need tomorrow.
They can’t tell you what they need today so don’t expect them to tell you what they’ll need in two years’ time, when their jobs will have changed and there will be a slew of  other new products out there…

So where do we go from here?

Steve Jobs again: “Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” I got really excited after reading this passage in his biography by Walter Isaacson. That was it! You have to read things at a deeper level and predict the future. I went back to my Excel spreadsheet all energised and well determined to boil it down to a few outstanding features. The result? A better job, but still somewhat disappointing. Once again, it was late at night and  I was eating M&Ms in front of my computer.

So how do you “read things that are not yet on the page”?

I’ll never be Steve Jobs but over the last years, I’ve managed to standardise my approach so it leads to excellent and consistent results. We’ll discusss in the next two articles how to structure your approach to nnew product development and ost import, how to bring value to your customers.

Remember those M&Ms? I don’t miss them anymore, and my customers are much happier with the solutions they receive. I even have time to go to the gym after work…

Do your customers know what they want? What problems do you face when developing solutions for them?

Elithan Consultancy is a consultancy and interim management company that helps B2B technology
companies create, capture, position and launch customer value. Elithan Consultancy helps you make
informed and better decisions that lead to lower business risk and more positive outcomes.