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Why not just ask customers what they want?

How is it possible that a company can go through a whole development and launch cycle to only discover the market didn’t need or want the product? Sounds crazy but it happens all the time.

An initial idea seems to be good. It passes all of the internal scoring criteria, and the green light is given to develop and launch the product. The product marches along in the development process, perhaps a pretty good development process at that, except for one huge missing item:

The “voice-of-the customer” (VoC) and more importantly – the “meaning” of the voice-of-customer is neither heard, listened to nor understood until the very end – when it the product is launched and sales is out trying to sell it.

What could be easily addressed in understanding what customers wants in the early development and design stages where costs are relatively low is postponed until the bitter end – after launch and huge development and manufacturing cost have been invested.

If you are lucky you got the design right and developed a product customers want and will buy – but if for whatever reason you missed the mark – whoa! – now you got a huge loser on your hand – there’s got to be a better way to increase your success odds. There is and it’s called getting feedback from your targeted customers early on and often. Especially for true innovations and new products.

So why would a development team not invest in understanding what customers want early on and throughout the development cycle? Ultimately the voice-of-the-customer will be heard one way or another:

“Hear me now, or hear me later. It really doesn’t matter to me because ultimately I will tell you through my willingness to buy your product or stick with what I am already doing. Just be warned you might not like what I tell you.”

There are several reasons why development teams don’t incorporate the voice of customer in their processes. One common reason is that their development process doesn’t incorporate customer feedback. It is assumed in the very beginning of the project that the specifications are all that matter and as long as they are clear, the product will be successful.

Unfortunately good specifications are the outcome of understanding what the customer really wants. Very seldom in the early stages of design and development will we know truly what customers want. It takes feedback through iterative design to truly understand what customers want and need.

Another often cited reason why development teams don’t use voice of customer is that “customers can’t tell you what they want “and related to that “we do ask customers what they want and all we get is incremental ideas.” Ergo – so the thought goes – “why waste time when customers can’t tell us what they want anyway?”

There is some truth to the notion that customers can’t always tell you what they want – at least not in-terms of a clear specification much let alone tell you what your next breakthrough product ought to be. Customers can however tell you “what jobs they are trying to get done” and provide you with a good definition of their desired outcomes in executing their jobs.

The concept of understanding “jobs-to-be-done” was articulated by Clay Christensen in his must read book “The Innovator’s Solution. Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth.” Here’s what Christensen says about “jobs-to-be-done:”

“When customers become aware of a job that they need to get done in their lives, they look around for a product or service that they can “hire” to get the job done.”

Do you know what “jobs” your customer is trying to get done and how they determine their satisfaction level of getting their jobs done? This is the true essence of understanding the voice-of-customer and a topic we will continue to explore in future blogs.

In the meantime, I leave you with this classic flow chart of what happens to a development project when the voice of customer misunderstood.

(The source of this project management flowchart is unknown – I’d love to know who created it.) Cheers!


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