As a business it’s imperative to identify who your customers are, their needs, expectations and anticipate how these might change in the future. Learn how to identify your customers’ needs and what you should do once you understand them.
What is a customer need?
Let’s first start by defining what a customer need is. GOV.UK describes a user need as the following:
User needs’ are the needs that a user has of a service, and which that service must satisfy for the user to get the right outcome for them.
It’s important to understand that a customer need is not the same as a want. A want is when you would like to have something (emotional/irrational).
Learning about your customers’ requirements
To understand your customer requirements, it helps to get answers to a series of questions such as:
- Who are your customers?
- What is the job to be done?
- What is the context behind the problem?
- What triggered the need?
- What frustrations do customers currently have?
- What is the unmet need?
We talk later on in this article about methods you can use to get answers to these questions by conducting customer research.
Viewing customer needs from an organisation perspective
It’s also important to look at customer needs from an organisation’s perspective. It creates a more complete understanding of how the organisation is currently supporting customer needs and if there are any opportunities to improve customer satisfaction.
In Dan Olsen’s book, The Lean Product Playbook: How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback, Olsen developed a simple and visual way of illustrating how an online need could be viewed from both a customer and organisation perspective to kick-start this thought process (See figure 1).
Later in the article we talk about a method called ‘Current-state service blueprinting’ which also looks at both perspectives along an end-to-end journey.
Challenge your own assumptions
Challenge your own assumptions of what your customer needs actually are and what problem they’re trying to solve.
A great example of this, and how the real customer need was uncovered, was when McDonald’s wanted to uplift sales of their milkshakes. Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor illustrated this when he provided McDonald’s with his consultative services.
A research study on milkshake flavours and textures had been conducted by McDonald’s with what it believed to be archetypal milkshake consumers. After bringing in changes to the milkshake product, there was no increase in sales.
George Anders summarised Christensen’s work well with the following quote:
After doing some consulting work for McDonalds, Christensen said, he discovered that half the fast-food chain’s milkshake buyers turn out to be early morning commuters with a long,boring drive,who need some way to stay engaged with life.The other half are dads in the afternoon, buying a treat for their children. Each market segment will buy more if packaging and pick-up options are improved; fiddling with the shakes’ actual flavor turns out to be less relevant.
This is a perfect example of when an organisation chooses the wrong product development area, when it should in fact be discovering what the actual customer need is first, and then developing the product or service based on these findings. This should provide value to both the organisation, uplift in sales, and benefit to the customer in meeting their need.
Why is meeting customer needs important?
We now have more choice than ever. If a service is not meeting your needs, you can very likely find an alternative with little trouble. If organisations don’t take meeting customers’ needs and expectations seriously, they run the risk of not retaining customers and losing out to competitors who are customer-focused.
Society and people’s attitudes are changing
Both society and people’s behaviours are also constantly changing and identifying customer needs is key to any business model.
A good example of this is the ongoing change in people’s diet. People are becoming more conscious about the impact eating red meat is having on both the environment and their health. There is a growing trend to switch to a meat free, plant-based diet and sales growth in this area is on the up (See figure 2).
Monitoring changes such as these and anticipating customer needs and expectations is key to staying ahead of the curve. Reactive organisations that aren’t prepared for these changes are at a disadvantage and will lose out to the competition.
Performing a regular PEST analysis is a useful way to keep on top of any forces affecting the business environment (See figure 3).
To add to fierce competition, the level of service we expect as customers is getting higher – partly due to the ethos of companies like Amazon, who are strongly customer focused.
Amazon provides an ecosystem of first-class, innovative service experiences that are frictionless from end-to-end, meeting the users’ needs at every stage. The ecommerce giant is staying ahead of the game by meeting customer needs before there is even a need to be met.
As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said:
There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality. Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples. In order to retain product market fit, Amazon is leveraging ever more advanced technologies, big data and machine learning to constantly personalise and predict experiences – not to mention remaining a market leader.
On top of this approach, companies are leveraging ever more sophisticated competitive intelligence tools in order to stay ahead and to understand:
- what keywords customers are using to find their products or services
- what offers competitors have on
- what price point their competitors are selling their product or service for
How do I discover customer needs and identify opportunities?
To discover what your customer needs are, you should first establish what questions you want to get answers to in your research. Questions workshops with members of the research team and stakeholders are a great way of doing this collaboratively. In them, you’ll define a backlog of questions you need answers to through research activities. There are various methods of uncovering your customer needs. Which combination of methods you choose depends on factors such as time, budget, the insight outcomes you want to achieve and the audience you’re targeting.
Here are just a few to get you started.
Look at previous research and data
The first place to start is to review any data or customer research that already exists – for example, search logs, analytics data customer conversations and previous user research. This will establish any areas where there are knowledge gaps, and ensure you avoid duplicating research that’s already been done.
Leveraging tools such as Google Analytics provides the opportunity to analyse the keywords customers have used and provides insights into the journey they have taken to find the content that answers their questions.
Current-state service blueprinting
This method focuses on understanding the current end-to-end experience of a service from both a user point of view (front stage) and the organisation’s process, policies, systems and people (backstage) that help support the service.
Each blueprint created focuses on one particular scenario and user journey through multiple touch points over a period of time. This helps you understand all customer interactions with the organisation. In effect, current-state blueprinting is a collaborative audit of the current service experience as a whole and leverages insight gathered from previous research and stakeholder engagement to inform it. Blueprinting offers a way of visualising the bigger picture. It facilitates the communication of a shared understanding of the service through an organisation, as well as identifying critical moments where the organisation is required to fulfil user needs.
The diagram below (See figure 4), produced by Erik Flowers, shows the current-state of a new member signing up to the Slack community. Working from left to right along a journey, the diagram illustrates the:
- main phases of the process at the top
- individual steps the user takes, along with descriptions
- actors (people) interacting with the service at every stage
- systems that help support the service
- ideas to alleviate pain points
- pain points and issues
Customer support staff interviews
Interview people who have direct contact with the customer (e.g. call centres) to find out what the most frequently asked questions, gain further understanding of customer feedback and understand typical problems encountered. You can also discover how they’re solving these problems. You may find that staff have already found a way of meeting customer needs and expectations and this resolution could be replicated on another touchpoint to improve customer retention rate for example.
Competitor reviews and value proposition definition
Conducting expert reviews of your competitors is a good way to understand how your product or service stands up against theirs – and whether they are better or worse at meeting customer needs. An example of this could be comparing the feature sets or services that your competitors provide, compared to yourselves.
This type of activity can help with:
- Identifying improvements to your offering
- Discovering points of differentiation from your competitors
- Defining your value proposition
- Identifying opportunities to capitalise on
Website surveys can be a relatively quick and cost-effective way to capture the voice of the customer directly at the point of engagement – especially effective if you’re looking for feedback on your website. These can be used to answer questions such as:
- What type of customers are visiting the website?
- Why are they visiting the website?
- Where are they in their engagement journey with the organisation?
- What problem are they hoping the website will solve?
- Is the website currently meeting their needs?
- If not, how could it be improved to meet their needs?
Customer discovery interviews
Facilitated customer discovery interviews, both remote or in-person, provides you the chance to speak to the customer directly. You can find out the real underlying problem to be solved, and the reason for the need, by using techniques such as the Five Whys. This is where the interviewer asks a series of ‘Why?’ questions that relate to each other one after another (See figure 5).
The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
Why? - The battery is dead. (First why)
Why? - The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)
Why? - The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)
Why? - The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)
Why? - The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)
An important point to note is ensuring that everyone who has a need for your service can use it. These interviews are a great method of talking to people who require digital assisted support and uncovering their needs. Government Digital Services (GDS) are doing some superb work to understand needs and make services as inclusive as possible to meet a range of people’s needs both offline and online. They have an entire section of their Service Standard dedicated to learning about user needs.
Monitoring online discussions on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Quora, Reddit can be an effective way to establish customer needs and expectations. There are also dedicated tools to assist with this, like Google Alerts, so you can be notified of any brand mentions, or if you’d like to monitor a competitor’s activity for example to give you competitive intelligence.
Remote unmoderated user testing
Remote unmoderated user testing is a quick and cost-effective way of testing a particular service journey remotely without the need for a facilitator. Participants are asked to put themselves in a certain scenario and requested to complete a series of tasks, so you can capture their needs and any pain points they encounter along the way. Participants can take part in the study in their own environment, which helps to make it a more realistic and accurate experience, just as they would encounter in everyday life. Another advantage of unmoderated remote user testing is having the ability to quickly recruit participants from anywhere in the world, at any time of day. This helps when time is of the essence, or you want to test regularly.
Ethnographic studies are a great way to observe first-hand customer behaviour in their own environment. This provides researchers with more accurate data due to the participant being observed going about their tasks as they would normally do in their daily lives. This is not the case with other methods such as lab-based studies where the environment can make things feel a little abstracted and un-natural. How do I document customer needs?
Once the research sprint data has been analysed and synthesised using techniques such as ‘Atomic Research’, findings are normally documented as user needs. These are written to focus on the problem and not the solution. To quote an example from GOV.UK:
- As a [British person]
- I need [a passport]
- So that [I can travel abroad and prove my identity]
Writing user needs in this way allows you to create needs based segmentation of your audiences. Note that user needs are not written as user stories. They’re written at a higher level and don’t detail solutions.
How do I share customer needs?
To help create a customer-centred culture within your organisation, customer needs and learnings should be distributed to stakeholders and the wider organisation. This helps people from all roles within the organisation empathise with customers. Great ways of doing this include:
- Show & Tell presentations
- Storing all the research findings and user needs in one central place
- Pinning research findings up around the office
What do I do next?
Once you have completed your research and identified any customer needs that require further attention, the next stage is to look at creating the experience by exploring solutions that meets your customers’ needs – normally called an Alpha phase. This phase includes the formulation of a prototype that is tested with real users of a product or service in order to capture feedback.
When you’re happy that your chosen idea is meeting your customer needs, you can release a closed Beta version of the service. This is the first time the service will be in use outside of the organisation and provides feedback from a larger sample size. It also is an opportunity to test and capture feedback in order to iron out any issues before being released in a Live phase.
Remember, researching customer needs must be an ongoing practice that you continue throughout all phases of delivery - Discovery, Alpha, Beta and Live. Customer needs and expectations aren’t static and are constantly changing. If you only research them in your Discovery phrase, you risk not meeting their needs when you go live.