The Foundation of Customer Discovery: Understanding Customer Needs

Putting customer needs under a microscope.Customers have needs. Businesses sell products that address those needs. Everyone is happy. That is the basic formula for market capitalism. The fun resides in the details.

In another article I’ve explained how your understanding of customer needs will become the foundation for a business strategy. In this article I dig into the nuances of customer needs. Other posts cover the techniques for researching and discovering needs.

In this context I’m using the word “needs” very broadly. Think of it as a needs map that looks something like this:

Customer needs drive customer development.

When people tell you that you should figure out your “customer’s pain,” what they really mean (or should mean) is that you must understand your customers’ needs broadly and then prioritize them based on how important they are to the customers. If a customer doesn’t perceive a need as important, even after you’ve explained why, then addressing it will never be that valuable. To get to an understanding of customer needs, you need to break down the needs in each category in the diagram.

Pain vs. Aspiration

Problems are pain. They represent challenges or issues that customers want solved. For example, a company may be facing cyber-attacks: they want to stop loosing critical intellectual property to hackers because it hurts a lot. You’ve probably heard pain describe in degrees (e.g. vitamin, aspirin, antibiotics, etc.) and that’s a good way to think about it as your evaluating the importance of different needs.

But, pain isn’t the whole story. It’s convenient to say that products should address pain, but some products don’t address a problem as much as they help the customer achieve an aspiration such as goals or desires. For example, a customer might aspire to make more friends or have fun on a vacation, but they don’t think about these needs as pain, they think about them positively, so I call them aspirations.

Expressed vs. Latent

Expressed needs are needs that a customer can articulate specifically. “We want to secure our servers from advanced persistent threats.” “I want to eat great Mexican food tonight.”

Latent needs are the tricky ones because people don’t realize they have them, so they won’t tell you about them. People carry their latent needs without knowing them or least without being able to express them easily.

The sys admin who knows that she needs to secure her servers may not express the latent need to maintain performance. The guy who wants a great dinner may not be expressing a latent need to impress his girlfriend. The traveler who keeps getting lost may ask for directions not a better phone.

Often the greatest innovations come not from fixing expressed needs: “I want a faster horse.” They come from solving latent needs: “I want faster transportation.” By seeing the latent need you have the basis to innovate — invent cars instead of breed horses.

Business vs. Personal Needs

(To avoid a 3D chart I left this axis off of the diagram, so you can just note these with a little “b” or “p” as you fill in the chart. Personal and business needs both fall into all four boxes.)

In a B2B selling environment it’s typical to focus on business needs and these are usually the most important. But smart marketers dig deeper and try to understand personal needs as well. The sys admin may be gunning for a promotion or interested in build her career by learning something new.

On the consumer side, there are also business-like needs. For example, decisions about whether or not a consumer can afford a product will play into the more emotional influences as they seek to achieve their aspirations.

Different People & Different Needs

As I discuss in the article on customer decision making, usually customers include more than one person who influences the decision making. It’s not unusually for the different people in the decision making unit (DMU) to have different needs.

The easiest way to tackle this is to start with the business needs overall. Those needs that apply to the whole DMU. Usually these are the most salient and the most important. As you start to dial up your marketing communication efforts it can be useful to build personas for each of the people in the DMU, and then you can ferret out the unique needs of each role to hone your messages and target your content.

Ranking Needs

The chart should help you identify needs. However, it has a lot of layers so when you start using it to drive strategy you can simplify the representation by transferring all the needs to a single list and prioritizing them based on how important they are to the customer and how much value would be created for the customer by addressing the needs. That list will help shape a variety of other strategic decisions including market segmentation, pricing, messaging, etc.

Changing Needs

Bear in mind that customers change and so do their needs:

  • Your product will transform how people think about what they need
  • The business and personal context that shapes the needs will change
  • Competitors will influence how customers’ perceive their needs

Given that needs are constantly evolving the process of discovering customer needs never stops.

Discovering Needs

How do you discover customer needs? That question deserves its own article.