Sometimes, events in the universe just conspire to align themselves in such a way that a topic to write about becomes painfully self-evident. Such is what has happened over the last little period of time for me. I was the recipient of several surveys asking me as a customer, what I wanted. I also had the opportunity to read several surveys that had asked other types of customers what they wanted. These current events brought back recollections of past events that had already conveyed this topic into such clarity some time ago for me. I am of course talking about talking to customers, and more specifically what customers want.
What customers want is usually viewed as the holy grail of business conduct. If you can figure out what they want, you can create a product or service that will satisfy their desire. You can become famous and respected as a scion of business. You can be somebody.
One of the most popular methods for finding out what customers want is through the afore mentioned surveys. Another is industry forums and workshops. Yet another is actually talking to them face to face and just asking them. As I mentioned, I have recently had the opportunity to both read about and to some extent participate in these types of customer interactions. People had gone out, identified the customers, and asked them what they wanted. And lo and behold, they told us.
We now knew what they wanted. We could design and build the future around these responses. We had the information. We had the answers. We were off and running.
Not so fast.
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was once responsible for a business unit within a company. I had taken the adage to heart. I had created a users’ group so that I could talk directly to my customers and understand what they wanted as well as what was dissatisfying them. It worked great, for a while.
Most of the time the problems, issues and requests that we discussed were well known to both groups, the company as well as the users. We prioritized them, focused our abilities, and instead of trying to solve them all at once, we solved a few at a time and made measurable progress. As we took the major issues and dissatisfiers off the list, they were eventually replaced with more and more arcane topics. They were still dissatisfiers, but not on the same level as those that we had already dealt with. Soon we found ourselves starting to try and prioritize and work on the arcane as opposed to the well-defined issues.
We surveyed the customers to try and understand “what they wanted”. They were not shy. We hadn’t put any limitations on what their responses could be, so they told us what they wanted. They had gone through a prolonged period of getting many of the products and issue resolutions that they were looking for, so their expectations were high regarding what our responses would be.
The subtle change that had occurred was that we were now specifically discussing things that they wanted, where in the past we had been working on topics that needed to be worked or corrected. These were now “want” to haves, as opposed to “have” to have topics. There is a different commercial model when it comes to correcting issues or providing already committed functionalities, then there is when it comes to fulfilling customer wants and desires.
We started discussing the parameters for the commercial model associated with fulfilling their desires. We started to ask them for money in order for us to deliver what they wanted. What they wanted was so arcane, and technically complicated, they we started asking for a lot of money.
The next users group meeting came along, and naturally, this issue was a major topic of discussion. The customers were unhappy. They were dissatisfied. They were not getting what they wanted. It came time to have “the talk” with them individually, and as a user group in general.
We set up the session and cleared the agenda. We started off by making sure that we had in fact properly scoped and defined the specific desired capability that they said they wanted. We wanted to make sure that we were answering and addressing the proper topic. We had.
We then asked the question that hence forth has always accompanied any time in the future that that I have asked a customer what they wanted. We asked:
“Are you willing to pay for what you want?”
It is easy for anyone, customers included, to come up with a list of things that they want. The issue here is always two-fold: Are you willing to pay for it? And, do you have enough money to pay for it?
Usually when customers are surveyed about needs, wants, desires, there is little in the way of a perceived economic model accompanying these questions. Wants invariably well exceed available budgets and the ability to purchase these wants. The different relative costs associated with the various desires can have a significant effect on the priority with which the customer views them.
A good example would be a survey about cars. You can be asked what kind of car you would want. You may “want” an exotic super-car. They are nice cars. You may not have enough money on hand, nor the desire to re-mortgage your house in order to buy an exotic super-car. Even though you may want one, you may not be willing to pay what it costs to buy one.
Such is the issue we ran into way back when. We asked only about “wants”. Such is the issue that seems to continue to plague more recent industry survey and customer communications.
Getting back to my historical lesson, most of the customers agreed that they would be willing to pay something for their desired functionality. It is interesting to note here that I said “most”. There were some that were not. I think by now you know where I will be going with this.
I then shared what the order of magnitude estimate was for the company to develop the desired capability and explained that even though it might be contrary to common opinion, we were a “for profit” organization. The stockholders were funny that way, and sort of insisted on it. Based on the business case and the relative number of interested customers, we then shared an order of magnitude individual customer price for the desired capability, based on the assumption that all interested customers would purchase it at the estimated price.
The majority of the customers indicated that they were not interested in the capability at the estimated price. We then looked at the remaining customers and indicated that their price would go up in proportion to the number of customers that were no longer interested in purchasing the capability.
The result of the discussion was that we publicly addressed the dissatisfier and quantified to the customer what it would cost them to be satisfied, and then mutually decided that we would not develop and supply the customer desired functionality. We would instead work with them to see if there were work-arounds or other methods of addressing the desired functionality.
During the course of this interaction it became clear that what customers want is indeed an important aspect of the process of creating customer satisfaction. You have to know what they want. Many times, it is within your ability to provide it, and to provide in such a way or at such a price point that it makes sense for all involved. However, as technology has evolved, and as budgets continue to tighten, sometimes the usual economic model will not work.
In today’s business climate, any time that you are looking to have interactions with customers regarding “what they want” as a method of gaging which products to create or which strategic directions to pursue, it will probably be in everyone’s best interest to include questions regarding if that customer would be willing to purchase that desired product or functionality, and what specifically (at lease to a rounded order of magnitude) what they would be willing to pay for it.
All customers have a list of wants and desires. If you only ask them about those wants and desires you may find yourself trying to design and build products, services and functionalities that customers may be unwilling to purchase, even though they may want them. I think the number of people that may want an exotic super-car is far greater than the number of people that are actually willing to pay what it costs to buy one. I’m pretty sure about this because as I drive around in my distinctly non-exotic super-car, I see so many others driving around in their non-exotic super-cars.
As an aside I can’t believe that so many other people actually wanted all those minivans that they are driving around in. Perhaps that will be something to analyze in a future edition.
I think that we all need to be aware of what customers want. I also think that unless we normalize these wants with information regarding which wants they are willing to pay for, and how much they might be willing to pay for each one, we can lead ourselves into some difficult business situations.