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Why listening to customers may fool you.

Updated: Jun 13

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.

The best option is to visit and interview the customers on-site at the location where the product or service is used. This makes it easier for the customer to relate to the questions and for the interviewer to capture the needs of a more subtle nature.

One of the aims is also to give people a more in-depth insight into the environment in which the new product is to be used and the customer’s feelings and way of thinking. All members of the project team should make customer visits and carry out these interviews, preferably in pairs. Your engineer often has a much better conversation with the customer's engineer than a member of your sales force. They can relate to each other and the product in a different manner and better understand complex issues and their technical consequences and significance.

This does not mean that the interview should be technical in nature, on the contrary. In our experience, is it more comfortable for an experienced engineer trained in interview techniques to move off the solution. Take the discussion to a more abstract level in an attempt to better understand what benefits or drawbacks different technical solutions has for the customer. They do not have to prove that they know all the technical details.

Sales representatives may, of course, also be included, but in a more passive and social role. The objective for them is to listen and learn, not to sell. If the customer feels the presence of a hidden agenda and that the interview aims to sell more products or justify an increase in price, he/she will not be receptive, and rapport is lost. On the other hand, if the customer feels that genuine interest is being shown in his/her problems and the visit aims to understand and solve problems, the interview will be conducted in a more constructive and open atmosphere.

When conducting customer interviews, don’t ask "What do you want?". The answer to that type of question is of no interest. The customer will merely define an already familiar solution instead of his/her needs. These in-depth interviews should instead be based on open-ended questions. Questions in which the customer is encouraged to share his/her experiences and thoughts. The questions must be directed to discover fundamental needs and emotional aspects. The goal is to create an understanding of which needs and resource concerns that are met:

  • satisfactorily

  • unsatisfactory

  • not at all.

Don't focus entirely on technical and logical aspects. It is also crucial to go for emotional and behavioral issues. Remember that customer value is made up of both intellectual and emotional elements.

These visits and in-depth interviews will often unmask crucial information previously unknown to the team and organization. Use a voice recorder and digital camera if the customer permits. Used methodically, these aids can help to create a valuable collection of information. We have participated in numerous projects in which this information has provided the development team with food for thought and a deeper understanding of how products are used in practice. It is not uncommon that customers install, use or maintain the product in a way that is incorrect or cumbersome. An important issue may be to analyze why this is so. Maybe the environment in which the product exists does not allow for any other alternative, or perhaps available information is either lacking or has been misunderstood by the customer. No requirement or technical specification can ever replace this more subtle kind of information or facts.

The questions should also cover the entire commercial process and customer interaction with the product in all stages ranging from prospect to decommissioner. A good rule of thumb is to divide the in-depth interview into sections following the customer journey, a day at work or before, during and after using the product or service.

Capture and describe the customer’s needs without distortions, misinterpretations or the addition of your own evaluations. Customer needs and resource concerns are qualitative information and are, to a high degree, the outcome or desired result the product produces from a customer’s point of view. They are subtle elements describing how the customer perceives the present situation or what he/she is looking for in a new product. The aim is for the customer to define his/her impression of the product in the form of brief phrases for future prioritization and benchmarking. These statements or sound bites should be captured and formulated in a language familiar to and easily understood by the customer. Quite literally use the customer’s own words wherever possible. The following are examples of short phrases describing customer needs and resource concerns:

  • easy to install

  • quick to learn

  • flexible configuration

  • good value for money.

Customer needs and resource concerns are qualitative information as there are no established methods for quantifying easy to learn or flexible configuration.

Research has shown that carrying out approximately 30 in-depth interviews, and interactions with the customers capture around 80 – 90% of spoken needs. We have found that about 30 interviews are also a manageable activity for a typical “Voice of the Customer” project to carry out. These in-depth interviews should preferably be done in pairs with one representative from local sales and the other from the project team. In a team of six members this means five customer visits and interviews per team member. If several market segments or more stakeholders along the customer chain need to be covered, the number of visits and interviews conducted by each team member may have to be increased.

A second method of pinpointing customer needs is studying the customer. This may involve:

  • studying the customer’s situation, history and business. Where is the customer coming from, and where is he/she going in the future? The more you know about the customer and his/her business, the better equipped you are to capture both unspoken basic needs and excitement needs.

  • making a review of the previous year’s sales and claims statistics to provide information about unspoken basic needs that may have been forgotten.

  • involving people within your organization who work close to the customer, such as service staff. Especially those who visit the customer when your products cause problems. The customer does not react in the same way to these individuals as he/she does to sales representatives, and they can, therefore, be a source of valuable information.

  • watching the customer using the product. Try to be the fly on the wall and create opportunities in which you can study the customer without interfering. Even customers develop blind spots and forget about a specific need. People quickly get used to workarounds and forget the initial frustration. You should, therefore, watch both experienced and inexperienced customers using the product. In other cases, the customer may have discovered an ingenious way to use the product or has changed or adapted your product in such a way that an unspoken need has come to light.

A third method of pinpointing customer needs is to be the customer. Do everything the customer does from sending for brochures, placing orders, installing the product, operating, repairing, maintaining and decommissioning the product.

Have a new employee who lacks any preconceived notions take on this task and see what problems and difficulties arise. Attempting to be the customer helps capture unspoken needs that the customer has difficulty in articulating. The importance of being "ghost customers" or "mystery customers" is many times underestimated.


Finally, customer needs do not remain static but undergo constant change. It is also therefore essential to capture trends and any eventual upcoming new needs. Always try to have a few pioneers or lead users among the customers interviewed. Find out their thoughts on the future and the direction they are taking.

The combined results of the above activities create a reasonably complete picture. Each source of information contributes to a few of the pieces required to complete the whole puzzle. It makes no difference whether one or several customers have expressed a specific need. No such evaluations are made at this stage. The only goal here is to create a comprehensive picture. It is therefore of no great importance if the occasional interview goes off track or is unsuccessful.

The voice of customer information, from loop 1, ideally comprises the following:

  • a data bank of pictures taken at the customer’s site showing the customer installing, using, servicing or repairing the product

  • a sufficient number of typed out in-depth interviews that have been analyzed and discussed by the “Voice of the Customer” team so that the right conclusions have been drawn. At least 150 and preferably 500 short phrases describing customer needs and resource concerns have been transferred to sticky notes.

  • an analysis of the customer’s present situation, history and development trends. The whole team has a thorough understanding of the customer’s business and how your product can contribute to improving it.

  • a review of the previous year’s sales and claims statistics so that no basic needs or hidden problems are forgotten.

  • conclusions are drawn from interviews of internal salespeople, service personnel and other individuals in your organization who are frequently in direct contact with the customer.

  • results and insights are drawn from trying to be the customer. You and your "Voice of the Customer" team have performed the same tasks as the customer by buying, installing, operating, servicing, and repairing the product.

The above may sound like a wish list for Christmas. But if you want to break paradigms, take your product to the next level and take a quantum leap in customer value, this is the way to do it.

The prerequisite for making a quantum leap in customer value is that you first take a quantum leap in customer insights.

You have to do your homework better and more thorough than your competitors to keep or create a competitive edge.

To learn more on customer value follow "The customer value challenge". Several videos and posters on how to turn customer value into a concrete and practical tool to drive profitability, growth and sustainability.


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