Don’t Ask Your Customers What They Want

Ask what they do. Then focus on saving them time.

Written by Joe Procopio
Published on Apr. 19, 2023
Don’t Ask Your Customers What They Want
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A startup I advise is working on a B2B SaaS platform to take a large number of manual tasks out of the hands of their customers and automate those tasks as much as they can be automated. The goal of the product is to allow their customers to do more with less, increase efficiency and increase throughput. 

3 Reasons To Ask Customers What They Do

  1. To identify and remove the mundane from their everyday work lives
  2. To develop products that save them time
  3. To help them reach and exceed their goals more quickly

I work directly with their head of product. A while back, he had spent weeks talking to their current customers. This was the third round of these month-long sessions over a year’s worth of the product-build phase, and each session had become more frustrating than the last. 

The product was now on the market, somewhat successful, but the gains the customers were seeing were underperforming projections. Customer success was subtle, not pronounced. And before the product took the blame, the head of product wanted to know why. 

Why weren’t the customers using the product as often as they should?

Why were they misusing the product and creating workarounds?

Why were they setting themselves up for failure?

After all, he had given them exactly what they said they wanted.

“I’ve got to tell you, Joe,” he said. “And I’m not trying to be harsh, but it’s like they want someone else to do their job.”

Right there is the problem. Let’s talk about why giving your customers what they want can do more harm than good.

More from Joe ProcopioCustomer Success Is Not About Making Your Customers Happy


Why It’s Not About What They Want

Whenever I talk to my customers about my product, I think about the Henry Ford quote: If he asked his customers what they wanted, they would have told him they wanted faster horses.

The discussions I end up having are usually a lot different than what they might expect. I stay away from conversations about what they want or even what they need. I focus on what they do and why they do it.

This philosophy can sometimes be as confusing for my customers as it is sacrilegious among my entrepreneur and product engineering peers. But almost always, when they’re presented with the results, all is forgiven. 

Whether you’re building B2B or B2C, you’re trying to make the customer’s life easier. In a business sense, this is about removing all of the friction and mundanity from their day-to-day so they can get to their goals and beyond at a faster rate.

In other words, yes, they want someone else to do their job, or more to the point, do all of those things that they hate doing that are necessary evils to get to their goals. Or even do all of those things that they question whether or not those things are necessary to get them to their goals in the first place. 

In the context of product development, outside of the customer’s bubble, you don’t realize that the alternative you're presenting is just more change, more complication, more friction and more mundane tasks that they really don’t see a purpose for. 

This is why it’s necessary to talk to your customers. But what do they want? Probably not what you’re offering. 


Understand What They Do and Why

When I’m building a new product or a new feature, I’m not that interested in what the customer wants. In fact, in the context of product development, it’s a foregone conclusion that the customer usually only wants one of a few things: More time, more money, more knowledge, or in some cases more attention or recognition.

If your product can deliver three out of four of those things, you will sell it. 

But you’ll never know it can do that until you figure out how your product changes everyday life for the customer. And you’ll never know that until you understand what they do and why. 

So when I talk to a customer, they’re usually surprised that the focus is on them, not the product. They’re equally surprised when I’m not waving screenshots and demos at them and asking them what they think. They expect me to bring them a bunch of “what if” scenarios, but at the end of the day, the “what if” is on me, not them. 

If I become an expert on what they’re doing, I can automate it. If I figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing, I can eliminate it or reinvent it. And I can give it to them in a way that feels like doing less, not more. 

More On What Customers WantCustomers Don’t Want Amazing New Features. They Need Innovative Solutions.


Remember the 80/20 Rule of Automation

In closing, there’a a great science fiction book by Max Barry called Providence, which is the name of a ship that fights wars in space in the future. The warship is completely controlled by artificial intelligence and automation, with a skeleton crew on board whose job it is to…just be on board. 

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t go well. 

Automation, the kind that increases efficiency and throughput, isn’t about replacing talent, it’s about replacing repetition, removing the mundane, and freeing up that talent to do more of the thing they’re talented at. Like strategy.

That requires 80 percent automation and 20 percent human direction. It’s 80 percent software and 20 percent human ingenuity. It’s 80 percent of the friction removed, reducing the rest of those necessary evils to 20 percent of the customer’s day-to-day.

So don’t ask your customers what they want. Just focus on how you can give them 80 percent of their time back.

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Information Technology • Internet of Things • Mobile • On-Demand • Software