Yes, customers always know what they want

Marketers often feel like second-class citizens in their businesses because people think that new products and services come first, and marketing comes after.

You may have heard something like this from colleagues or friends: Assuming that people know what they want and need for a product is a mistake because they just don’t – just like nobody knew we needed an iPhone, before the first iPhone was launched. Just like no one knew they wanted Alexa until Alexa was born, or Ring Doorbells until it started, or PowerPoint until Microsoft invented it, etc.

The list goes on and on and always has the same point: people don’t know what they want until someone gets it first.

When a reporter asked what market research went into the iPad, Steve Jobs replied, “None. It’s not consumers’ job to know what they want.” (Lohr, S. “Without his Master of Design, Apple will face many challenges”, NY Times, 08/25/2011)

If so, focus groups, surveys, or other market research won’t make a difference as people can’t tell you what they want – except for certain features of products already in development.

What if customers know what they want?

In your company, engineering (or some other group outside of marketing) is most likely developing new products, and marketing has a responsibility to sell those products – good or bad.

It’s easy to see why marketers believe they don’t have much power over new products: they spend their time marketing other people’s new products.

But what if I told you people know what they want? Then I imagine your world would change completely. Marketing would be a place of power and you could then talk to customers and help engineering create new products that solve real problems.

The fact is, customers know what they want!

Customers know what advantages they want over functions or attributes

Let’s take a look at the iPhone first. Here is Steve Jobs’ introduction to the iPhone when it first came out in 2007:

Well, today we introduce three revolutionary products in this class. The first is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. The third is a breakthrough internet communication device. These are not three separate devices. This is a device. And we call it iPhone. Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.

What were the advantages of the iPhone when it came out?

Mobility, media storage, connection, etc. But also benefits like “I’m cool” or “I’m part of a group” or something that feels great and makes my photos look great. Even perks like “something I can only touch” (like the touchscreen introduced by IBM Simon 13 years before the iPhone in 1994). Was the convenience advantage (where phone, music, web access and touch are all in one device) invented by Apple?

Did the iPhone create these advantages? No. These are benefits related to basic human needs, goals, and desires. They already exist.

So yeah: nobody knew we needed an iPhone before the first iPhone was born, but everyone already knew they wanted all of these benefits, but there weren’t any products that provided them before the iPhone.

Let me give you one more example: before Uber came around, there were taxis. Uber (and the others they like) offered more control – I can order an Uber on my phone and see where it’s going – and easy payment. Has Uber created the advantage of wanting more control over your life? Do people want payment to be difficult?

The point is, people can’t tell you specific traits and attributes, but they can tell you what benefits they’re looking for.

Ask customers what problems and challenges (both large and small) they have or what resources (time, money, physical, psychological) they would like to save.

Know the needs and wants of your customers and know what they want

Here are some suggestions to get you started.

  • Listen to customers first – even the unhappy ones.
  • Second, you observe customers in real situations. You can also use focus groups and social media, but watch out for the perks that customers are looking for (not the products).
  • Finally, you can let customers develop new or ideal concepts for your products.

You may now think that customers cannot. As Eric von Hippel revealed in his “key users” study, approximately 82% of all commercial scientific instruments he examined were developed by end users rather than companies. Often suppliers also develop products.

Why is this happening? Because customers know what benefits they want – and if no company has developed a product to get those desired benefits, some customers create the products for themselves.

If you focus your attention on the benefits rather than the product features, characteristics and attributes, you will see marketing in a different light. They alert your company to new products and services that solve real customer problems.

More resources to know what your customers want

Know your customers (and reap the rewards)

When you create, will they buy? How to get from insights to products that customers want

What do your customers really, really want?

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