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What do customers really want? 12 March, 2008

Posted by Jay Ball in Uncategorized.

The truth is, for the most part, they don’t know. Quite often they know what they don’t want (lousy service, crappy products etc) but as for what they really want, the stuff that moves the conversation onwards, that changes behaviour – they’re not so sure.

Some years back I worked with a company who loved research. They researched everything. And they spent a small fortune doing so. This led to a variety of results:

  • They became very, very slow – everything took an age
  • They got more and more frustrated that their customers couldn’t come up with “the answer”
  • They spent money that could have been put to better use
  • But they covered their backs, no one got fired

The other week Fortune published an interview with Steve Jobs (well worth a read). In it he points out:

It’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do.

So you can’t go out and ask people, you know, what the next big [thing.] There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me “A faster horse.”‘

As people, we’re pretty lousy at predicting the future. This is as true for the performance of the stock market as it is for what we’ll have for dinner a week from now. However, we’re absolutely brilliant at post-rationalising why we did something in the past. We can create fantastic stories that demonstrate out thinking process and how one thing led to another and another. The problem is, as Hugh Laurie’s Dr House would say, “Everybody lies”.

They don’t mean to lie (well not normally) it’s just the way memory works. There is a perception that human memory works like computer memory, you access it and out it pops, same every time. The truth is, however, that we create our memories on the fly every time we access them. Add this to the fact that we all like to be seen as rational, sensible people and you can see why so much research delivers so little of any real value.

But it’s worse than that. Whenever you ask anyone for their thoughts, they immediately access the conscious part of their brain. Yet 95% of their thinking happens in the unconscious brain. As Gerald Zaltman points out in his excellent book How customers think:

Rather than actually guiding or controlling behaviour. Consciousness seems mainly to make sense of behaviour after it is executed.

Post-rationalisation again.

So what to do. Do we simply ditch research altogether? Personally, I’d say if you are going to do marketing research, it is best to keep it to testing broad propositions. Even then, treat the results with a whole heap of scepticism and as just one small part of the whole.

Better still is to research by doing. Keep some budget aside and try stuff out in addition to your main programmes. Treat your programmes as always in beta. Be flexible. Adapt.

It’s amazing how much can be done for relatively little cost. Sure, no focus group will have your back but you might, just might, discover the one thing that changes everything. And how cool is that?



1. MusicHoncho.com - 12 April, 2008

What customers really want? That is a million dollar question. I don’t think they really know, as a customer myself – I want quality first, service then last would be price.

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