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Customers Don’t Know What They Want
But they do know their painful problems, so focus on those.
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Customers are unreliable witnesses. If you are thinking about building a new product and you talk to a few potential customers, you’ll get a wide variety of feedback. Some will love it, some will hate it, and most won’t understand it. In fact, if you ask the same potential customer about the same hypothetical product a few times you are likely to get different answers!
As someone who has done thousands of customer research sessions around potential products, I’ve been there. It’s frustrating.
It’s not that these people want to lie to you, it’s just that they often are not sure exactly what they want! They are even less sure about what they need or how they might use something new. Here’s Rick Rubin, one of the best music producers in history:
"The audience doesn't know what they want. The audience only knows what's come before." (Rick Rubin)
Whether you are talking about products or music, Rick is right: the audience is only familiar with what they have already seen before. Very few of your potential customers have the skills or experience to imagine new products.
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As a result, when you tell them about a new hypothetical product they immediately try to equate it to something they already know. They see your product through the lens of the products they know best, instead of looking at your product on its own merits.
For example, let’s say I was developing a new kind of tooth cleaner. You would use it every night to clean your teeth, and it would get them cleaner than anything else. Your mind immediately asked “Like a toothbrush?” because that’s what you know. No matter what I tell you next, you’ll be comparing my product to a toothbrush.
This kind of comparison lens is why feedback is so unreliable and varied. Different potential customers have different comparables, and depending on what they pick you’ll get different answers. A single customer might have different comparables based on what they were doing that morning, which is why you can get different answers from the same person!
So, asking them to imagine your hypothetical product won’t get you far. But, you know what all customers are good at?
This isn’t a criticism, we are all good at complaining. We all have problems and we are happy to talk about them when given the chance. In fact, we are so familiar with our problems that when we talk about them we are remarkably consistent.
To get feedback on your product from customers, don’t ask them to imagine your product. Ask them to complain about their problems. Instead of asking them what they think of some product mockups, ask them “What are the three biggest problems you are facing right now?” and get them talking about them.
Assuming your product solves one of their problems, you will learn everything you need to know:
How do they describe the problem?
How often do they have it?
What makes it so painful?
The way they describe the problem is the same language you should use to describe your product. The way they experience pain from the problem is the first thing your product needs to solve. If your product is going to solve their problem, it should be obvious from their complaint.
You will not succeed if you try to convince the customer they have a problem
If it’s not obvious, you should reconsider your product designs and plans. You will not succeed if you try to convince the customer they have a problem, or that they are thinking about their problems incorrectly. Customers know their problems so well you aren’t going to change their minds. What you can do is design a product that is perfectly engineered to fit into the problem as they see it.
When I meet teams that have trouble with their marketing funnel or sales conversion rates, it almost always comes down to a failure to do this. They built a product to solve a problem that the customer either doesn’t think they have, or the customer doesn’t think of their problem in the same way. True Product/Market Fit comes from solving a problem in the way that customers get it immediately.
Even if you do this, you will still get a variety of complaints from a given group of customers. The difference is that we know there is gold in those complaints and we just need to look for it.
So, what are your three biggest problems?
For more on Understanding your Customers, see:
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