What They Want – Reasons Why Focus Groups Or Directly Asking Customers Might Not Work
Finding a need in the market and providing a solution, improvement or additional value in that area underlies almost every conceivable business model. Companies have to possess reliable, current knowledge of what their customers need and keep pace with changes in customer needs. Knowing this, though, is easier said than done. This fact explains why companies spend a considerable amount of time and energy trying to peer into their customers’ minds to better craft the products and services on offer.
One common misconception comes from a generally solid idea, which is to simply ask customers what they want. While this definitely should form a part of a company’s strategy, relying solely on direct customer input can lead organizations astray in a number of ways. Instead, any forward-thinking organization should have a multi-pronged approach to analyzing customer desires and requirements. The following three reasons should make it clear why what customers say doesn’t necessarily help an organization optimize its offerings.
Reason #1: Lies and BiasesThese two aspects of human nature go hand in hand. First, people often deceive others and themselves for a number of reasons. One of the biggest reasons people tell little white lies to companies doesn’t indicate anything more sinister than the fact that people have busy lives. Potential customers usually don’t spend much time pondering a particular product or service in their free time. They want to get rid of a salesperson or sales pitch and get on with their business as quickly as possible.When contacted about a new product or an alternative to an existing product, many people just go on autopilot. Some standard responses that people in this mode come up with include not having enough money, agreeing to receive info to consider at a later date or just claiming that they are happy with their current service provider or company. These responses are not necessarily false, but they aren’t necessarily true, either.
To get around these reflexive objections, a salesperson or company representative must refocus the conversation on how their product or service will actually solve issues that the consumer may have not even considered. Good salespeople know this, but marketers have to remember this, too. Listening to customers’ desires only reveals part of the picture a company truly needs.
Another type of customer may just not want to come off as rude or unpleasant. Some people just don’t feel comfortable speaking in a frank and honest way to someone who represents the organization in question. Combine this with confirmation bias, in which a company’s management tends to focus on comments that confirm what they already think of their product, and you end up with false notions about how well a product is actually being received.
Surveys can mislead companies in many ways in this regard. Depending on how a survey presents questions to a particular demographic, customers may find themselves cornered into providing responses that don’t reflect what they truly think. They may just pick between two choices that don’t represent what they really consider when making a buying decision.
Similarly, the wording might sway customers to one response or another. Sometimes this results from a subconscious bias on the part of the survey writer. In other cases, survey writers simply overlook aspects of the product that could require changes in wording or answer choices. So, while these tools can help unveil some aspects of customers’ true thoughts on a product, they have their limitations.
Reason #2: Customer Diversity and Market Fragmentation
The technological revolution in recent years has driven so many old ways of doing things by the wayside. The music, film and television industries have felt this most intensely, as large groups of consumers with similar tastes hardly exist anymore. The Internet and other technologies have allowed content producers to create content that appeals to increasingly narrow demographic groups. Consumers also group themselves into small communities of interest. Products and services in other industries face many of the same challenges.
The way the Internet connected so many previously disjointed companies, individuals and geographic regions changed the sheer scope of choice people have. Products from previously unknown companies in a different region or country suddenly became accessible. Products that didn’t have regional or global reach suddenly had web pages available to anyone with a connection to the Internet. Services, especially those that don’t require any deliverable physical items, immediately gained international status if they desired it.
However, along with this phenomenon comes a lot of noise. Customers find themselves distracted by the volume of offerings online. For a marketer, simply asking people what they want often evokes an uneducated response, since the possibilities available in the market appeal to smaller and smaller slices of the population. While someone in a given demographic might want one thing, a marketer could be talking to the wrong person altogether, thus skewing how a company evaluates true market demand.
Ultimately, more choice and more companies vying for consumers’ attention has somewhat eroded the trust people are willing to place in a company. That fact, in turn, leads back to the truthfulness a company can expect from customers. A preoccupied customer who places little trust in an organization will tend to provide less accurate information than consumers of past generations.
Marketers have to wean themselves off of the crutch of simply asking customers directly. Instead, they should forge new paths to connect with the lives of the customers who truly correspond to their particular brand by using social media and other tools. Tactics like these go some distance in bridging the trust gap in a fragmented market.
Reason #3: Customers Don’t Know What They Want
Despite all of the changes that have taken place in recent history, some truisms still apply. One of the most famous ones points out that customers do not create demand. They only play a role in it. The rest of demand comes from a range of other sources. The companies creating products and services play no small part in sparking interest among the public and fueling demand.
This is not to say that people will buy anything. They won’t. However, they don’t spend much time at all thinking about how to make things better or streamline services they use on a regular basis. How things work just constructs their reality. Therefore, when a marketer asks how a person likes a product or service, a lot of the information received in return reflects users’ expectations of existing products and services, not on how to innovate and improve them.
The rise of social media provides a great example of this very dynamic. Not too many years ago, very few people would have asked for sites and applications that allowed them to share photos, chat, form networks and share their preferences online. Now, few individuals and still fewer companies live without these tools. The usefulness of the product demonstrated in the real world created the demand for a product that the vast majority of people couldn’t even imagine.
Even for more traditional products, the same idea holds. Instead of asking customers what they like or dislike, a marketer has to actively engage in the customers’ experience. By putting themselves in the place of customers, marketers can experience what elements function well and what areas could use streamlining. Customer input does wonders, but companies have to pair it with empathy for what customers actually go through on their side and give them a superior experience.
Putting Everything Together
None of this should or can detract from the value of knowing what customers think and need. It does qualify how companies should use customer input, though. Companies have to keep in mind that people are busy with their lives and typically don’t place much value on giving accurate, detailed information to anyone about a product or service.
Moreover, company employees themselves tend to notice patterns that confirm their beliefs, as opposed to pieces of information that challenge their assumptions. In an increasingly fragmented marketplace, this often directs companies down paths that do not necessarily lead them to potential customers. Given the fact that consumers aren’t in the business of anticipating market changes and future possibilities, companies have an important role to play in analyzing customer behavior, which often deviates from self-reported behaviors. Managers can find that sweet spot from a combination of tactics and strategies to get to the heart of their customers’ true desires.