How Well Do You Really Know Your Customers? Three Questions You Should Be Asking

As consultants, we spend a lot of time solving our customers’ problems. We come armed with processes and systems, tools and techniques. We propose solutions and sell our products. But when was the last time you just sat down and talked to your customer?

Last weekend I attended Pioneer Nation 2015, a conference for independent entrepreneurs and all-around awesome people, held each year near Portland Oregon. It’s a small conference, allowing for more meaningful interactions with other attendees as well as presenters. This means that you learn not only from the stage, but from the other attendees as well. One big theme came up over and over again – don’t build your company on what you want, but on what your customer needs.

On a regular basis, you should be checking in with current and future customers to make sure your product, service, or campaign is still serving them in the way you intended. Instead of looking at market surveys, listening to experts, or sending out surveys, try the coffee method.  Invite a past or current customer, or a possible future customer, for a cup of coffee. Be upfront with them that this is not a sales call. Tell them instead that you are asking them to share their expertise with you. Few people can resist being the expert. When you get together, focus the conversation around three basic questions.

How are your customers seeing the marketplace?

While we spend a lot of time analyzing our markets in terms of our customers, how much do we understand our customers’ markets and how they perceive them? By having a better understanding of the customers’ world, we can better understand who they are, what they buy, and why they buy it.

 What problems or frustrations do your customers face? 

When you understand your customers’ business better, ask them about what’s really giving them heartburn. Look particularly for missing functions, gaps in service, or tasks that are not working for them. Focus on understanding what is keeping your customer from providing the best possible products and services for their customers.

What does your customer need from his vendors and providers?

This is not about asking what the next product or service your customer needs to buy. This is about understanding what the customer values. On the service, it is usually cost that comes up first. But if you really get deeper into the discussion, you will find other, more important issues. It could be speed of delivery, reliability, flexible inventory, other shipping options, etc. You discussed what issues your customer faces, now understand how you can tailor your offerings in a way that helps the customer do his business better.  Note that you didn’t ask what product they want, because they may not know. No one knew they wanted an iPhone before it was released. Understand what problem, need, or desire you are developing toward instead.

These particular questions focus more on B2B relationships, but it applies to B2C as well. We can have conversations with our retail customers and clients as well, understanding how they see the available market, what issues they are trying to solve, and what they need from providers.

If you are struggling to find new clients, or to sell your amazing new product, consider sitting down with your customers and talking with them. Don’t try to sell them anything – you are not the seller in this conversation. Ask the right questions, and then be sure that you have designed your product or service to be something the customer needs and wants rather than something you wanted to build.

If you build it for yourself, it will stay at home with you. If you build it for others, only then will they come.