Why listening to customers may fool you.

Updated: Nov 19, 2019

Customer insights without a clear connection to value are no insights, only distractions.

The crux of the matter is that people confuse technical solutions with customer needs. So even if hundreds of customers tell you that they want stainless steel screws doesn't make it a customer need. It is a technical solution. The customer need is the answer to the question – What problems do customers believe will be solved by using stainless steel? It might even be a poor or too expensive solution. So doing exactly what customers tell you might even mislead you.


To capture the voice of the customer, you need a systematic and reliable process involving several customer interactions if a credible and comprehensive final result is to be achieved. We recommend using a method with a minimum of two loops of interactions in the following way:

  • loop 1, visit the customer and conduct in-depth interviews to gain insight into the customer’s situation, way of thinking, spoken and unspoken needs. Often called the explorative phase. This loop needs to be complemented with observations of the customers using and interacting with your company and the product plus being the customer yourselves. To “put yourself in the customer’s shoes” should not be interpreted figuratively, but literally. Doing all the things the customers are doing. This is sometimes called being "ghost customers" or "mystery customers".

  • loop 2, complete the “card deck dialogue” with a broader group of customers to gain prioritization of customer needs and benchmarking of your product offer against competitive product offers. The second loop is often called the quantitative or statistical phase.

This article focuses on loop 1, the explorative phase.

Making a solid “Voice of the customer” study is something that often is met with objections. Here is an example of a few of the most common reasons as to why this is considered, by some, to be pointless:

  • the sales force visits customers regularly, so we already know what customers want. We just need to ask our salespeople

  • customers are not aware of all the technical possibilities available, so they are in no position to make the right decision

  • customers do not have a common opinion so whom should we listen to?

  • customers change their minds all the time. Asking the same customer the same question several times will result in a different answer each time. Customers don’t even know themselves what they want!

  • customers are too unstructured. Ask a customer one question, and he/she will talk about something completely different. Customers mix small, unimportant details up with critical technical issues

  • customers are hard to understand. Just about everything they say is just a load of different opinions. They talk about elements that cannot be quantified like "easy installation" without being able to specify what they mean by that.

  • at the end of the day, customers are only interested in a low price. Negotiations always end up being about price and the main reason given for every lost order is that our product is too expensive.

No doubt you are familiar with all these objections. There is some degree of truth in them, but at the same time, they are founded on a bed of wrong assumptions.

Customers must be asked, but this does not mean any old customer asked any old question in any old manner by any old person. The use of wrong or poor methods will only provide wrong or poor results. Opinions like the above are often based on the fact that the use of poor methods has produced poor results. Under these circumstances, the conclusions drawn are quite correct.

To maintain a monopoly on customer information can in some organizations also be part of the political power game. Some salespeople regard the customer as their own and do not want any outsider getting involved. This is, of course, a completely unacceptable situation, but do not underestimate the difficulties of company politics.

What we will describe here is a process that hopefully can put an end to these objections in the future.

It is obvious that merely asking the customer and then just doing what the customer says is not good enough. The customer also has unspoken and hidden needs and prefer to tell you technical solutions instead of real customer needs. The conclusion is that the customer must be involved early in the development process, but that this alone is not sufficient to guarantee a complete and proper picture of customer needs and resource concerns.

According to Kano, there are two types of unspoken needs. Needs that the customers cannot articulate and therefore, difficult to capture during in-depth interviews.

The first category of unspoken needs is called basic needs. Basic needs are needs that the customer takes for granted.

Unspoken basic needs can be, for example:

  • established practice, everyone in the industry does it in the same way

  • tradition, it has always been done this way

  • safety, the customer doesn’t expect the supplier to sell a dangerous product

  • laws and regulations, the customer assumes that all laws and regulations are followed.

The second category of unspoken needs is excitement needs or delights. The first product that will fulfill such a customer need or resource concern will create a WoW-effect on the market. Excitement needs are needs that the customer does not believe or understand can be met by the product or service. Unspoken excitement needs can be, for example:

  • needs outside the existing paradigm of what the product is capable of performing today

  • latent needs that the customer has been unable to formulate or articulate.

When conducting interviews, be aware of the fact that the customer mixes up needs with functions, solutions and processes. For example, the customer might say that the product has to be equipped with stainless steel screws. This statement makes it easy to assume the customer is stating that stainless steel screws are an absolute necessity, but that may not be the case at all. Stainless steel screws might be a solution that the customer thinks or believes meets a particular need, so it is easy to articulate the need by using a known solution. Repeatedly probing deeper brings you successively closer to the fundamental need hidden beneath the customer’s original statement.

Whenever the customer expresses needs in the form of functions, solutions or processes, a little warning signal should be activated. Failure to do this runs the risk of ending up with lots of technical requirement such as stainless-steel screws, when, in fact, there may be an even better solution from the customer’s point of view.

There are only three methods for capturing the "Voice of the Customer". All three methods must be used as they provide complementary information. The three principal ways are:

  • asking the customer

  • studying the customer

  • being the customer.

By applying all three principles, a good understanding and picture of spoken as well as unspoken needs can be achieved.