Customer needs can and should guide innovation. So where does
the problem lie?
The answer is both simple and profound: It is the failure to understand exactly what a customer need is.
Five myths that have a particularly pernicious effect.
Like all myths, they have a basis in reality, but their unquestioned acceptance as truth is leading many companies astray—leading to wasted resources, disjointed innovation executions, missed growth opportunities, and product concepts that miss the mark with customers.
Myth No. 1: Customers Can’t Articulate Their Needs
“Ignore Your Customer!” This provocative title for a 1995 article published in Fortune magazine has become the mantra of a generation of product managers who operate under the mistaken belief that customers cannot articulate their needs. Customers will mislead you if you ask them about their needs—or so the thinking goes.
“If you had asked customers, they couldn’t have told you they needed the iPhone. Therefore, it must be true that customers cannot articulate what they need.”
But there’s the rub: However brilliant it may be, the iPhone
is not a customer need. The iPhone—like the microwave and
Walkman before it—is a solution to a customer need. When
companies get solutions and customer needs confused, it confuses
the role of the customer and the company in the innovation
process. Customers articulate their needs; it is up to the
company to create a solution.
It is not the role of the customer to provide technology
ideas to the company, or even to evaluate the potential for a
new technology to satisfy their unmet needs. How would they
know? They are not technology experts.
When customer needs are defined in a manner that distinguishes them
from solutions, not only can customers articulate their needs,
but those needs become the valued foundation the innovation
Myth No. 2: Customers Don’t Know What They Need
It is this myth that leads many product managers to conclude—incorrectly—that innovation is the process of “creating a customer need.”
“If the solution we’re going to propose does not yet exist,” the
managers say, “then how can customers possibly know that
they need it?” But again, the managers are confusing solutions
with needs. A product or service may do something that has
never been done before, but the needs it addresses will have
If a company can learn how customers evaluate how well they’re
able to get jobs done using today’s solutions, then it can learn
precisely where customers have needs that are currently unmet
by any solutions.
Myth No. 3: Different Customers, Different Needs
“If you’ve seen one hospital, you’ve seen one hospital!” This humorous comment captured the recognition that every hospital has its own way of doing things. But it would be dangerous to conclude that because each hospital has its own way of doing things, each hospital is trying to satisfy a different set of needs.
Why this myth, because they are looking at the solutions
customers are currently using—rather than at the job the
customer is trying to get done.
There may be any number of possible solutions to the problems a job presents, but that doesn’t mean that there is more than one job.
If the innovation team focuses on the solution that customers are using, it will limit how they perceive the customers’ actual needs.
Myth No. 4: Customer Needs Change Quickly Over Time
Solutions come and go. Many believe that customer needs change quickly over time. Unfortunately, this mistaken belief leads many to downplay the role of customer needs in guiding strategy and long-term product planning.
If solutions and customer needs are not properly distinguished, companies can mistakenly conclude that needs change rapidly over time.
The reality is that customer needs are quite stable when
properly defined around the job the customer is trying to get
If customer needs do not reference particular
solutions—such as financial planning software—they have a relevance that spans years and decades. It is true that the priorities people attach to these needs will vary over time, as society changes and new solutions are introduced. However, the underlying needs remain
Myth No. 5: Customer Needs Differ by Org. Purpose
The primary reason for these internal coordination problems
is the absence of a precise and shared language for speaking
about customer needs.
All must first agree on what a good customer need statement is—one that will inform the varied purposes of all.
Resource: Debunking Myths about Customer Needs