The “My Customers Aren’t Asking for It” Trap

PitfallHere’s something that I hear from business and marketing executives and, each time, I shake my head in disbelieve. Those words are “My customers aren’t asking for it.” Six words that are one of biggest marketing traps and why some organizations stop growing and lose customers to forward-thinking competitors.  In 1967, no customer said “You know what. I wish some company would make a machine that uses microwaves to cook food faster!”…yet the microwave oven was developed. Or said in 2003, “Why can’t a company invent a magazine-sized device to surf the web?”…yet the iPad and other tablets are now the rage.  And that’s the case the with the majority of new products, especially those that can help differentiate a business from competitors. Customers, meaning 99.999% of people, are not thinking like product developers, but that doesn’t for a nanosecond mean that when presented with a “WOW” product they won’t want it, tell their family and friends and their social media circles that they should get it as well.

“My customer isn’t asking for it” in essence says that your organization is one built on the idea that only after a number of customers come in asking for it, will you decide to create, utilize or stock the whatever-it-is. Which more times than not is after your competitors are already doing it.  We would agree that’s not how an organization should act if the object is to grow. And one of the tenets of growing means that you are leading customers. You’re bringing new ideas and solutions to them that either enriches their lives or drives future sales to your business or has them see you in a different light. “My customer isn’t asking for it” also suggests that the organization is a follower, a “me-too” and not an organization that people think of when they’re looking at viable alternatives, that wonders why customers aren’t doing business with them as they did many years ago.

“My customer isn’t asking for it” defines your organization on so many levels both to your internal staff as well as to the outside world. It speaks to how you view what customer service means; how you want your brand to be defined and compared to competitors; whether you’re seen as a progressive leader or a reactive follower in your industry or marketplace; if you’re a company that embraces new ideas or is the epitome of the status quo.

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” — Steve Jobs

So, was Steve Job’s right?

Well there’s certainly a number of organizations that say he isn’t.  A lot of firms wouldn’t feel comfortable pressing forward with a new product offering or service feature without doing significant customer research to determine all aspects of consumer interest, purchase intent, etc. Think about the expenses, the manpower allocation, the buy-in from internal resources; and so on. Yes, there is much at stake.   Any innovative company struggles with how much to listen to customers.

That said, there are many respected professionals who would say that, yes, he was right. There are hundreds and thousands of new products each year that find overwhelming customer acceptance with little or no consumer research being done.  These companies are successful because they push boundaries and do the unexpected. They’re about anticipation, instinct, insights—and, ultimately, curiosity and experience. Going back to Apple, if customers were asked how they’d like to improve the music listening experience back in a day where CD players ruled, they likely couldn’t have envisioned the iPod.

Consumers can’t think in abstractions. They cannot envision a new concept. They can only compare against their current frame of reference. When you rely on consumer input, it is inevitable that they will tell you to do what other popular companies are doing.  So you need to make the big leap for them. You need to provide them with a reason to buy, a reason to brag to their friends. Expect the “new-to-the-world” ideas to fall on deaf ears. Consumers will, however, change their tune when they can see, touch, and explore.  So, do customers really know what they want?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” –Henry Ford

To avoid stepping in the “My customer isn’t asking for it” business trap, here are a few things to give thought to as you move forward:

  • Start with understanding your customer better than you now do. Whenever our firm calls customers of our clients to gain insight about why they purchased a particular product or service and we then share it with our clients, I can tell you that in each and every instance, the client has said something along the lines of “Really, they said that?” Or, “I would never have guessed that’s why…” Or, “This is going to cause us to change how we do business.” Every. Single. Time.
  • Successful, market-leading businesses hold a vision for their customers. These businesses use their unique insight into their customers’ day-to-day lives to see what tomorrow will look like and create the solutions that meet them at tomorrow and beyond. They understand that the customer is always changing. You have the opportunity to serve them as they change – or you can take a narrow-minded perspective and only sell to them that which you already have to sell.
  • Understanding the business that you’re really in helps you to see what kind of products and services your customer would be receptive too, or even crazy about, beyond your current product and service offerings.
  • Think about the sort of offerings that could have your customers react to emotionally.
  • Seeing your current and prospective customers as people who desire new products and services… the kind that others aren’t offering, means that you see your company as a never being just part of the herd.

So maybe the next time the words “my customer isn’t asking for it” cross your lips, regroup and think for a moment what that might say about you and your organization. And then think about what if the competitor down the street said, “Hmm. That’s an interesting product. Let’s see if we can make something new happen for our customers. They might just love it!”

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Rolf Gutknecht is vice president, director of account services for LA ads. To discuss your thoughts with Rolf on this blog or any marketing matters, email via this link, or visit www.LAadsMarketing.com.  You can also connect with Rolf on LinkedIn.

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