How To Tell What Your Customers Want Or Need

How to tell what your customer needs How to tell what your customer needs

A few years ago I worked as a sales rep for a movie distributor in Los Angeles. I called on small, neighborhood video store owners and sold them video movies. These stores would be within a mile of each other, or in some cases, right across the street. I would go into one store and all they wanted was the latest comedies. “My customers just want comedies.” “They won’t rent that other stuff.” I would go across the street and, “Give me action-adventure movies.” “I couldn’t give away a comedy in this store.” Why the difference in customer preference in just a few hundred feet?

The difference wasn’t in the customers of the stores, it was the owners of the stores. The comedy store owner loved comedies and recommended them to all his customers. The action-adventure owner did the same. The customers who liked each, over time, became regulars at the store that fit their preference.

The question is, Can this type of promotion work in other types of businesses? Consider the following:


What’s Your Opinion Worth?

If you aren’t typical of your target market, it doesn’t really matter what you think. Just because you aren’t the target market doesn’t mean a market does not exist. I have never purchased a Michael Jackson or Madonna CD. Should they stop singing and get out of the music business? No. Could I sell their records to customers even though I’m not a fan? You bet I could.

The first message of this article is: Don’t start believing every customer thinks like you do. They may have totally different opinions and/or tastes.


Learn From The Mistakes Of The Big Guys

Xerox is a fairly large company. Inventor of the laser printer, the computer monitor, the computer mouse and icons on the screen. When Steve Jobs (co-founder of Apple Computer) visited the company he came away with an idea for a new computer…the Macintosh.

The Mac got off to a great start. In fact, the 1984 Super Bowl TV commercial announcing the Mac, is considered by most advertising experts as the greatest commercial ever made. Apple started to grow, went public, and threw Jobs out.

John Sculley, formerly of Pepsi, took over. Against the advice of one of his major software suppliers, he decided that Apple would not license it’s operating system as IBM had done. The result? Sales of Macintosh started to decline over the next few years because IBM clones were everywhere and available for less money.

1998, Sculley is gone Steve Jobs is back, the operating system is being licensed and Apple has shown a profit for four straight quarters. 60% of all web pages (html=Mac, htm=IBM) are created on the Mac as are virtually every newspaper and magazine.

Oh, the software supplier who suggested Sculley license the Mac operating system back in 1986…Bill Gates.

The second message is: Become a student of business in general and use the mistakes of others to your advantage.


Learn About Customer Needs From The Inside Out

Who is more in touch with your customers than the people who deal with them one-on-one, day in and day out? Start your customer research within the company.

Problem: Management is often thin-skinned about negative feedback. Employees are sometimes reluctant to bring problems to managements attention because they feel they may be blamed for mis-handling the customer or situation.

Solution: Create an environment where complaints are taken as a “suggestion for overall company improvement” not for casting a “finger of blame.” Talk to your employees in groups of two or more and ask some of the following:

  • What are the two complaints you hear most often from our customers?
  • What are the two positives you hear most often from our customers?
  • From the customers point of view, what is the single worst thing about our company?
  • From the customers point of view, what is the single best thing about our company?
  • What policy(s) would you change that would keep customers from going to our competitors?
  • What policy(s) would you change that would make us more customer friendly?
  • What would it take to get a customer to refer others to us?
  • Next, put employees and key customers together and ask the customers the same questions. Are the answers the same? In most cases they won’t be. This exercise can be a real eye-opener to both employees and customers. 

Conduct Exit Polls

This doesn’t mean did you vote Republican or Democrat. When I worked with Circuit City, the largest electronics retailer in the U.S., we always did exit polls of customers.

Some of the questions we wanted to know were;

  • What brought you to the store today?
  • Did you find what you were looking for?
  • Did someone greet you and offer to help?
  • Was the person knowledgeable and friendly?
  • Was the product selection adequate?
  • Did you make a purchase?
  • You get the idea.

This is the ideal place to find unhappy customers. Unhappy customers, if asked, will provide chapter and verse of their unpleasant experience. Let them talk and learn and improve from the experience.


How Do Your Customers Compare You To Your Competition?

Problem: Customers who have never been in your business before, will compare you to your competition. Customers will have preconceived notions about your industry. They not only look at your industry but they also compare you with unrelated businesses. They may compare a carpet store service with a restaurant’s service. I know that doesn’t make sense but we are creatures of emotion not logic.

Solution: Learn the art of listening to customers. I know you think you do but most people prepare what they are going to say next rather than listen to what the customer is saying. Also, make sure you know what things you are listening for. Customers have an indirect way of telling you if they had a bad experience someplace else. See “Customer Service: Customer Phrases To Watch For.”


How To Get Customers To Talk

Ever try to carry on a conversation with someone who speaks a language you don’t speak. You draw pictures, do charades, sign language and hope that somehow the message is getting through. What a relief when an interpreter shows up.

Sometimes we feel we need an interpreter to communicate with some customers even with a common language. There are people who have a hard time describing what they are looking for or explaining their problem to us.

When talking to your customer, please don’t complicate the problem by using “industry language” . Industry language is a word, acronym or phrase that is peculiar only to your business or industry. You use them day after day. They become second nature to you. Remember how strange they sounded when you had to learn them.

Xerox is great at this stuff. Instead of “single-sided” or “double-sided” copies, they use “simplex” and “duplex.” A stapler is a “finisher.” Paper weights are “throughput.” Would you like an “interposer”, “foreign interface”, “heat-duct kit”, or “printer enablement kit” on your copier. Even Xerox people don’t know what half that stuff is. So, how can the customer be expected to understand these strange terms.

Talk as though you were explaining to your grandmother. Each time you make a presentation or show a product, it should be like the very first time. Keep It Simple.

Make sure you are reaching the customer by asking open-ended questions from time to time. Don’t say, “Do you understand?” Instead, “Bob, how would you use this feature at your house?” Be quiet and listen.


A Final Thought On Customer Needs

If there is one message in this article to take with you, it is to communicate with your customers as often as you can. Use customer focus groups, customer advisory boards and exit polls. Use a shopping service to shop you or your competitors. Make it easy to complain or compliment your company and it’s people. Train employees in the phrases to listen for to head off problems. Empower employees to solve customer complaints quickly.

by Tom Egelhoff at

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