How to Know What Customers Really Want (Even Before They Do)

What is a product, exactly?

Is a product a collection of features unified around a central theme? Is it a tool to get a specific job done or to somehow enhance the quality of the user’s life? Is it simply the thing you develop and sell to earn revenue for your company? Perhaps it is all of these things.

But as a product manager, your answer to the question should probably sound more like this: A product is a solution to a problem that my personas are facing.

This means that to innovate as a product manager, one of your tasks will be to temporarily stop thinking about what your product does and instead focus on the problem it is designed to solve.

4 Tips for Learning What Customers Really Want, Even if They Can’t Tell You

1. Figure out what problem you’re trying to solve.

Netflix solves customer problems

For example:

Netflix broke its own business model a few years ago. The company earned a position as a market leader in the home entertainment space with its original model of charging a subscription to customers and sending them DVDs through the mail.

But the team at Netflix obviously saw the long-term flaw in this model: There wasn’t a lot of intellectual property or barriers to entry in buying bulk orders of DVDs from the movie studios and using the United States Postal Service for delivery. Their dominance in this service would last only until, say, a Blockbuster or other major player decided to enter the market and compete — which Blockbuster did.

Had Netflix asked its customers seven years ago what they really wanted from the company, they might have said they wanted the subscription rates to be lower. Or maybe a greater selection of movies to rent, or for Netflix to use FedEx instead of the Postal Service, for faster delivery of DVDs.

What percentage of those customers would have answered, “Let us stream your content over the Internet, to our TVs and other devices, by embedding an app directly into our cable and satellite services and other set-top boxes?” Not many.

But Netflix was thinking beyond their customers’ ability to articulate what they really wanted. They wanted a faster, more convenient way to receive and consume their entertainment. So their product upgrade wasn’t about adding features or efficiencies to their existing product, or lowering its cost. Their upgrade was about solving their customers’ problems. A problem they didn’t even know they had because they hadn’t yet seen the solution.

And that solution was on-demand streaming of entertainment content, anytime, to virtually any internet-connected device.

“Faster Horse” Theory of Product Management

This is the “faster horse” theory of product management, made famous by Henry Ford. When horses were the primary means of transportation, and Ford asked his would-be customers what they wanted in terms of better transportation, most simply answered, “a faster horse.”

That would have been a product upgrade — but merely an incremental one. What Ford’s customers really wanted, without having the vision or language to explain it, was a more effective and convenient means of transportation. Ideally, one that didn’t need to rest so often or leave poop in the owner’s driveway.

It’s the concept of problem first—the idea that you don’t start with the product. Rather, you lead with the problem that you’re solving. If you can figure out what your customers’ real problems are — not simply the problems they themselves are able to articulate, but the real ones — then you can identify the opportunities to create products that delight those customers.

Read Feature-less Roadmaps: Unlock Your Product's Strategic Potential➜

2. Learn what your customers’ customers want.

your customers' customers

If you’re selling a business-to-business product, this is another vital strategy for successful innovation. Learn not only what your customers want but what their customers want. As a product manager, you need to really understand the buyer persona that you’ll be working on before you can prioritize features.

If you develop a data analysis platform for consulting firms, then the clients of those consulting firms represent a gold mine of intelligence for you about what types of features will resonate with your consulting firm personas.

For example:

Let’s say your product’s primary customer persona is a consultant who caters to the healthcare industry. And perhaps one of the value propositions of your platform is that the analytical work it does for your consulting firm customer will help their healthcare clients’ executives build credibility when they use those data points with the media.

Now, the consulting firms who subscribe to your analytics platform might never have asked you for this — because their sales reps might not have thought of it — but perhaps you can build functionality into your analytics tool that outputs specific types of data in media-friendly formats, such as easy-to-read pie charts or bar graphs, or even pre-built templates for full data reports, which the health care companies can then give directly to industry reporters for publication in their pages — branded by the healthcare provider, for even more thought-leadership street cred.

I use a template for tracking customer problems, value propositions for our product, must-have features, objections, probability of buying, and interesting quotes. I then summarize what I’m hearing into a spreadsheet to make it easier to digest the massive amount of qualitative information I’ve gathered. This information will ultimately point you in the right direction as to which features you prioritize.

By learning what motivates both your customers and their customers, you can greatly increase your ability to develop successful products before the market asks you — or worse, asks your competitors — to build them.

3. Stop listening to your customers.

stop listening to your customers

Okay, that might be worded a little too strongly. You don’t want to ignore your customer or user personas outright. Their feedback can be an invaluable source of information on where your existing products are working and where they are coming up short.

But you need to keep in mind that your customers know only what they’ve seen and used, and as such, they are often a misleading source of information about what you should be building next.

For example:

Consider how Hollywood’s major movie studios make films today. They test. They survey. They focus group. They copy what was done last year. They combine the concepts of two already-successful films so they can say “It’s X Meets Y.” In fact, in many cases, the producers of high-budget blockbusters are so unsure of how their work will resonate that they often script and film multiple endings — and then test the various options with audiences, to make sure they are not delivering a “product” that disappoints.

And all of those safety measures explain why every Hollywood blockbuster is such a terrific film — adored by fans and hailed by critics. Only kidding. It’s why so many big-budget Hollywood movies are so similar, predictable, and boring. It’s precisely because the budgets are so huge and the stakes so high for the studio executives that they so often take the safe route — double-checking every detail with the movie-going public beforehand, so they minimize their risk of putting out a product that doesn’t generate enough buyers to earn back its staggering costs.

It’s also why a small group of filmmakers without the pressure of a big budget on the line were able to make the movie they knew their audience would like, even if the concept had never been done before. That movie, The Blair Witch Project, cost about $35,000 and earned more than $100 million. All without the filmmakers first asking their customers what they wanted.

Product managers who rely too heavily on customer feedback or surveys are effectively tying an innovative hand behind their back — limiting their options for their products to only the requests and demands of their existing customers.

That’s not how the iPhone was developed.

4. Learn as much as you can about your personas’ jobs or lives.

persona's life

You’ll notice that again this is a suggestion not to focus on your product itself, but rather on the people who will be using it.

If you sell lawnmowers for residential use, for example, asking your existing customers what they want from your next model will almost certainly yield predictable results: faster blades, bigger grass catcher, more cutting-height options, lower engine noise, etc.

But if you learn, for example, that the majority of your customers live in the South or Southwest, and that they typically cut their grass in the hot afternoon hours, perhaps such insight will lead you to prioritize an innovative shading device — may be a built-in umbrella or even an add-on product designed specifically for your mower.

The more you know about how your customers live, and how they use your products, the more those learnings will lead to inspirations — which can lead you to develop products that both surprise and delight your customers.

Let us know what you think about how to know what customers really want in the comments below!