Central to a business’s success is its ability to communicate well with its customers. Reaching potential consumers and retaining existing ones hinges on an understanding of what people who seek out your product or service are looking for. When you know why customers seek you out, you can deliver on what they need—whether they know exactly what it is or not. The best way to uncover that information is by conducting a customer needs assessment.
That places understanding customer needs at the center of good business strategy. Assessing your customers’ needs may sound vague, complicated, or overwhelming—after all, everyone is different, and sometimes preferences for one product over another can be difficult to explain.
But customer needs assessments are a recognized business process. The steps are well-understood, even if companies and researchers are constantly looking for ways to improve them. And you can customize your approach to suit the needs and nature of your business.
What is a customer needs assessment?
Simply put, a customer needs assessment is a structured, thoughtful investigation into why your customers—current or potential—buy your product. It’s the problem your customer has that they seek out your product to solve.
Put another way, as described by Clayton Christensen, customer needs are “jobs to be done.” When a consumer buys a product, they’re “hiring” it to accomplish something for them.
But the things a consumer is looking to accomplish aren’t always concrete. In some cases, it may be: someone looking for a mop just needs to clean the floor, after all. But other needs can be more than just functional. Customer needs can be social and emotional, as well.
A customer may want the brand of mop that “everyone knows” does the best job, so that others view them as clean. They may want a brand that’s ethically produced, or one that has features that make mopping feel like less of a time-consuming chore.
The value of understanding customer needs.
Making an investigation into understanding the role your product plays in your customers’ lives helps you in a few ways. First, it gets at the heart of product development. As you create new products and fine-tune existing ones, you can make sure they truly match the problem you’re aiming to solve.
Customer needs information also helps you ensure that your products are as appealing as they can be to your target audience. Knowing what your customers are looking for helps you create features and attributes that address those goals.
It also helps you market your product effectively. If your product already does something that consumers are searching for, it’s an incredible advantage to be able to play up that aspect in your advertising and other outreach.
The information you gain from a customer needs assessment is valuable for your business. It helps you to develop and market your product with your customers’ needs in mind. It helps you to identify needs—or jobs to be done—that your customers themselves may not fully be aware of. Solving for a problem your customers didn’t know they had will win you a lot of loyalty.
And finally, it helps you keep sight of what your customers already value about your product, so that you can keep doing—and properly promote—what made you successful in the first place.
Key components of a customer needs assessment.
So now that you know the kind of value you can get out of a customer needs assessment, you probably want to know how to go about actually conducting one. There are as many methods as there are advisers out there offering suggestions, but all of them boil down to two central steps: collecting raw data about your customers, and interpreting it to extract insights.
One note: an important prerequisite to researching your target audience is making sure that you know who they are. See our post about Voice of Customer strategy for more information.
Collecting customer data
Data about your customers’ needs can come from a variety of sources. You can also collect it in a variety of ways: through observation; from unsolicited commentary; and by active request. Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar breaks information-gathering out into channels with the “Look, Ask, Try” framework:
There’s a wealth of information out there already about your customers and their sentiments. Your current and potential customers are sharing their opinions and desires about your product on social media, in comments and feedback, and in customer-service interactions.
It’s a lot of data to comb through. But this kind of observation can help you identify not just what customers are explicitly looking for—it can also help to identify latent needs, or needs that your customers themselves haven’t yet identified as such.
However, in order to pinpoint these unexpected opportunities, it’s crucial to maintain an open and neutral approach to collecting your data. Your preexisting expectations about your customers can shape what you see in their behavior if you aren’t careful.
In addition, keep an eye out for compensating behaviors—that is, things your audience do to work around a problem they don’t have a solution for. They may use or modify products in surprising ways that lead you to an insight about new features.
To that end, setting out an explicit methodology for how you’ll conduct data collection is a big help. Also, AI and machine learning can help you ingest all of this data and may provide surprising insights.
Surveys and other solicited feedback are a key part of conducting customer needs assessments. Delivering on latent or unexpected needs can give you a boost of positive sentiment, but for customers, there’s no substitute for just being heard.
Asking open-ended and thoughtful questions can lead you to some of the most straightforward product-development wins you can find. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews are all excellent venues for drawing out customer sentiment and understanding their perceptions of your product.
However, the same caveat from the “Look” approach applies here too: leave room for the unexpected. Pointed or targeted questions can cut off lines of discussion that might reveal unanticipated opportunities. Consider brainstorming survey or interview questions with other stakeholders, for a different perspective.
When interviewing, it’s also important to watch out for two types of customer who can provide you with valuable insights. These are lead users and extreme users. Lead users are early adopters, who experience customer needs months or years before the rest of your audience will. If you identify a lead user, their responses can provide insights into the future of customer needs.
Extreme users, on the other hand, have edge-case needs. They may have a disability that impacts the way they use your product, or be using it in a unique context. These users can springboard you to valuable innovation that benefits everyone.
The classic example is kitchen supply company OXO, whose founder, Sam Farber, designed kitchen-tool grips that were easier for his wife—who had arthritis in her hands—to hold and use. These grips aren’t just easier for people with arthritis, though. They’re easier and more comfortable for anyone, and OXO became a popular brand thanks to that innovation.
Firsthand experience is the most direct way to engage with your customers’ needs. Walking through the steps your customers take when using your product or service can reveal low-hanging fruit: easy wins that will smooth the way for your customers and build the foundation for future innovation.
Solicited and unsolicited feedback are rooted largely in what your users can identify themselves. Listening to your customers helps you to discover pain points and certain explicit needs. But putting yourself in their shoes can uncover nuances of the user experience that customers themselves might not be aware of or know how to articulate.
Testing products yourself is easier in some fields than others. Tangible products and software are relatively modular and easy to try out, while a landscape or floor plan might be harder to test before it’s constructed. You can get creative—use props and furniture, or create computer models to simulate an environment.
It’s also important to consider questions of context when conducting your customer needs assessment. Even for self-contained products like our mop example, putting yourself in a customer’s shoes might include contemplating time constraints for a working parent, or maneuverability limitations for a customer who uses a wheelchair.
Interpreting customer data
Developing insights from your data is arguably the most important part of conducting a customer needs assessment.
First, record the results of your data collection. Keep your notes specific and focused on the product. This is an area where “jobs to be done” theory can be helpful: what job is the customer “hiring” your product for? What feature or attribute could make your product better suited for the job?
Once you’ve identified a list of customer needs, you can then organize and prioritize them. The Kano model, developed by Noriaki Kano in the 1980’s, is helpful for pinpointing the product features that will have the biggest impact on customer satisfaction. Kano’s model sorts product features into five categories:
The Kano model of analysis isn’t the only way to structure the results of your data-gathering. There are a wide range of tools to help you spot the patterns in your customer information. The most important thing is finding one that makes sense to you and works for your product.
Moving forward, informed.
A clear, data-driven understanding of what’s important to your customers is an invaluable resource. It provides a solid foundation for your business’s decision-making as you develop new products or features, market your existing ones, and assess your customer-service processes.
Customer needs are always growing and changing. Conducting a customer needs assessment shouldn’t be a one-time effort. It’s worth the investment to find tools that can help you stay in touch with what your users want. Make it a fundamental part of your business strategy to understand your customers, and your company will see the return on investment.
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