How do I find out what my customers want?

Gregg Fairbrothers:  You have to talk to customers, early and often.  And never stop.  If you don’t believe deep down customers will buy at a price that works for you, you don’t have a company.

  1. Ask them!
  2. This is the art of market validation.  There are two goals:
    • Convincing yourself “the dogs really will eat the dog food” (as they say).
    • Getting ideas.  Customers often have better ideas for products, services, and features than you do.
  3. There’s a whole range of practices that help with finding out what customers want – interviews, focus groups, surveys, and customer visits.  You can hire people to help you, everything from inexpensive to a small fortune.  It’s all an art anyway, and there are few hard answers.  Do as much of it yourself as you can

Mike Clarkin (Global Vice President, Marketing and Strategy, Sykes Enterprises):  First, I’d rephrase the question to “what do my customers need?”   So often, customers view of what they want is just a linear extension of where they are – a little more this, a little more that.  To discover what your customers really need, just be observant.   Watch them go through their “day in the life” and see what opportunities you see for improvement, breakthrough, or just doing things completely differently. But there is no substitute for first-hand knowledge and observation.  Get out there side by side with your customers, and see what it is like to live a day in their shoes.  Then you’ll have your own ideas about what they need, and would truly appreciate.

Jack Groetzinger (Co-Founder, SeatGeek): Most obviously, ask them.  Most customers are quite wiling to tell you what they need.  Simple as that sounds, many companies fail to do it.  It’s particularly easy to fall into the trap of not talking to customers if you’ve raised a round of financing before launching a product.  You get a pile of money, hire a team, and then put your head down and build the product you think your customers want.  Five million dollars later, you find out you were wrong.

Even if you talk to plenty of customers at the outset, the first thing you launch often won’t resemble the product that eventually succeeds.  My current company, SeatGeek, initially launched as a forecaster of sports and concert ticket prices, but eventually transformed into a ticket search engine.  Companies that win are those that can quickly internalize customer feedback, integrate it into their product, and launch a new version.  Thus, your goal should be to launch something as soon as possible, because only once you have a product out in the wild will you know how you need to adapt.  It’s trite but true nonetheless: if you aren’t uncomfortable with the crudeness of your product when you first launch, then you’ve launched too late.



Dwight Keysor (Entrepreneur): One of the biggest mistakes that entrepreneurs (and Fortune 500 companies!) make is that they don’t take the right approach to innovation and product development. You can THINK that you have a great idea and spend millions bringing the product or service to market but if customers don’t like it, they won’t buy it, and you’ll be left with nothing. Innovation and product development should always start with the customer.

There are a number of ways to determine what customers want – focus groups, online surveys, third party research and consulting services (which are usually expensive).

What is the best way to find out what customers want? Ask them! This is the art of market validation. By going directly to the customer with questions about your product or service you will gain valuable insights into your business. Key questions to ask include:

  • Would you buy my product or service?
    • If no, why?
    • If yes, what are you willing to pay for it?
  • How do we compare to the competition?
  • What specifically do you like/dislike about our product or service?
  • Is there anything that we could do to improve our product or service?

The last question raises another key point. Customers will often times have better ideas for products, services or alternative features. By taking the time to go directly to your prospective customer base, you will increase your odds of developing a truly valuable product or service, and validate that somebody will buy it!


Kevin J. McClamroch (Vice President – Sales, Adams-Burch):  You must master the “Art of Asking Questions”. In many instances there is a big difference between what the customer wants and what the customer needs. At an introductory level you can ask three questions that can give you a ring side seat to a miracle:

1.      What is working for you right now?

2.     What isn’t working for you right now?

3.     What do you need from me right now?

 If you have a solution to a need that you feel the customer has then there are five things that will determine if the customer will purchase your solution:

1.      Do they feel the need is important enough to invest time solving?

2.     Do they feel that the value gained from the solution is considerably higher than the cost of the solution?

3.      How easy is it to implement the solution?

4.      How easy is it to address problems that come with the use of the solution?

5.     How easy is it to get re-order more of the solution when that time comes?

 A good company lives in the question asking zone.


Kelly Sennatt (2012 MBA Candidate, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth): One of the key messages that Gregg taught us in class was to talk to as many people as you can about your idea (rather than try to “hide” it from people who might steal it), and I would say the corollary to this is to read as much as possible and once you are up and running, talk to as many people as you can about the decisions you make along the way, since you are not the first person to try to do this.

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