What do customers really want17 July 2012
Perhaps the most fundamental question you can ask a business owner is “what do your customers really want from you?”
It doesn’t matter what your clients do, ask them what their customers want, and help them come up with the answer.
It may sound like an easy question to answer. For example the patrons of a bar want food, drink and entertainment and the customers of a plumber want their pipes and drains fixed. But while those answers are completely true they’re not the full picture. Often, what customers really want is not what it appears to be on the surface. You and your clients may need to dig more deeply to uncover what their customers actually want.
Let’s go back more than 50 years to explore why this happens.
“Marketing Myopia” was the title of a famous Harvard Business Review article written by Theodore Levitt and published in 1960. His concept of marketing myopia refers to what happens when a business focuses on the product or services it provides rather than on what its customers actually want.
Levitt gave the example of the US railroad industry where many previously successful companies were then struggling. Levitt noted that the vision of the railroad company executives was restricted (ie myopic) because they saw themselves as being in the railroad business rather than in the wider transportation business. They had banked on the presumed longevity of their existing rail services and this blinded them to other, better opportunities. For example it was only a few years later that Fred Smith, with no existing infrastructure to restrict his thinking, set up the first courier company – Federal Express.
If the railroad company executives had been able to see the wider opportunities in the transportation industry as clearly as Smith did, the railroad companies could have dominated the courier business. Instead, their shortsightedness meant they missed out and their existing businesses continued declining.
More recently Apple has revolutionised the music business with their combination of the iPod (and now the iPhone) along with the iTunes software and store. Plenty of other companies had recognised that people wanted their music to be mobile. Sony had, after all, introduced the Walkman in the 1980s and other companies began selling digital MP3 players well before Apple. The genius of Jobs was to recognise that just selling a great device wasn’t enough. People also wanted a legitimate and easy way to buy and manage digital music. They wanted a service like iTunes.
Jobs was not blinded by Apple’s technology or by what everyone else was doing. He was able to see beyond that and fundamentally change a whole industry by linking great technology with a seamless distribution model.
Your clients’ businesses will most likely be more straightforward than Apple’s. Yet the principle remains the same.
Let’s go back and have a look at our bar. Most bar patrons certainly want a mix of food, drink and entertainment that is right for them, their friends and perhaps the people they hope to meet. The mix will vary depending on the type of patrons the bar wants to attract. What is right for a tapas bar in the central city will be different to a neighbourhood sports bar. But what I think most patrons really want from a bar are comfort and security so they can enjoy their night out.
The customers of our plumbing business expect their plumbing systems to be fixed up if there is a problem. But what I think they really want is someone to turn up quickly and on time, give them an accurate diagnosis and a fixed price, and complete the job quickly and tidy up afterwards.
Finding out what customers really want is not easy. They won’t always give you the deeper answer straight away. It requires questioning and reflection. This is where you can help.
Start with asking your client what customers want and, provided your client is willing, you can also question their customers. You can do this individually or in a focus group. As well as finding out what is really important you will also uncover the myriad of small opportunities for improvement that frustrate customers, but that they don’t tell the business owner about.
Once the questioning process has been completed for the first time – and it is something that should be repeated regularly – then you can reflect on the answers with your client. Dig deep enough and you will find out what their customers truly want.
And of course you should carry out exactly the same process on your business. Do you know what your clients really want from you?
July 2012 - John Haylock
This article first appeared in The Journal. It is reproduced with the permission of the NZICA.
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