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The flaw with asking customers what they want

28th Jun 2017
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My kids have the annoying quality of calling out my hypocrisy with remarkable consistency.  They notice when I say one thing and do another.

I tell them to not yell at me from another room but to come and talk to me.  However, when it’s convenient for me, I yell at them from the bottom of the stairs to come down and get ready for school.  I also tell them that it is important to take care of the environment, but then they point out that we have a swimming pool and two cars, which I don’t hesitate to drive 3 blocks to get milk (only one at a time mind you).

I feel badly about this. I wish I could be more consistent.  But after all, I’m only human.

Your customers are human too. They will tell you one thing, and then behave another way.

If you ask them “What would you like this product to do?” they will tell you that they want it to be blue, and that they want to be able to customize it more, and that they want it to feature dancing hamsters prominently.  So you put on your customer-focused glasses and you build exactly what they asked for.  But then they don’t buy it. 

Stupid customers.  Who decided it would be a good idea to listen to them anyways?  Sound familiar?

It is important to remember that just like me (and you), your customers are not totally consistent and are not entirely rational.

Just like me, your customers will say one thing and do another.

That’s why, when you listen to them, you need to take a dual strategy.  You need to ask them directly what they think, feel, and want.  But you also need to quietly observe what they actually do.  What they will say out loud represents their rational thinking process. What they actually do gives insight into other issues that might be going on.  You need to know both in order to give them the experiences they need.

Social media gives us a powerful way to quietly observe our customers.  The conversations that they have online gives you a way to listen to your customers and your community at a scale that is unprecedented.  It’s like being able to listen to all the conversations at all the cocktail parties in the world at once.

Last week, I gave a talk at the World Conference for International Association of Business Communicators in San Francisco.  I talked about ways that we can listen to our customers at scale using social media, and how we can get some deep insights about our customers this way. Listening is the first step to effective communication so it is important to get that part right.

For example, in one case study, we found out that when our customers talk about our product, they do not talk about our competitors in the same conversation.  Or that people use different kinds of words when describing our product vs. our competition, which can give us insights into the words that WE can use for better market positioning.  We also discovered that people were voicing security concerns about one of our competitors, which can give us an edge in talking about our product.

Here’s the point.  Sometimes, asking your customers what they want is not enough.  You need to also quietly observe them.  Social media allows us to observe our customers at a larger scale than ever before.

 Photo credit: James Cridland (Creative Commons Commercial license)

Replies (9)

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By Ravi Gupta
29th Jun 2017 12:37

The flaw exists in question itself. it should be what do you NEED ?

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Jim Rembach - Call Center Coach
By Jim Rembach
05th Jul 2017 01:03

Thanks Jana!

The difference between cognition and behavior can be large when asking what they want or need. Observation and testing before you fully deploy should be fundamental practices.

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