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Do you really know what your customers want?

By Jennie Wong
Special to The Observer
Jennie Wong
Jennie Wong, Ph.D., is a nationally syndicated columnist, executive coach, and the creator of the product quiz website www.ABorC.com.

Talking to your customers is a great idea, if you know how to do it. Talking to customers the wrong way, however, can send you down a long and expensive road to nowhere.

What you need is a process for understanding your customers and figuring out what they’ll buy. Here’s how.

Enter your customer’s world

The first step to entering your customer’s world is exiting your own. In the words of business author Steve Blank, “Get out of the building.” Leave your store, physically walk out of your office and spend some time with your customers at their place, whether that’s the kitchen table of a stay-at-home mom or the factory floor of a plant manager. See what they see, smell what they smell.

You may not realize that the stay-at-home mom only gets to use one hand most of the time because she’s carrying an infant, or that the plant manager wears ear plugs for most of the day. By hanging out with your customers you can discover the most elusive kind of information – the stuff that you don’t know that you don’t know.

Alex Cowan, in his book “Starting a Tech Business,” lists these objectives:

• Understand the buyer like you understand your best friend.

• Understand the buyer’s operating environment.

• Understand the buyer’s learning environment (how they discover new stuff).

• Understand the buyer’s perception of the problem or need you’re addressing.

• Understand how the buyer is solving the problem today.

• Know that customers are different than entrepreneurs.

While it might seem logical to think that customers would know what they want, it is actually the entrepreneur who has the imagination and creativity to envision something that doesn’t exist. What customers do know inside and out is their pain. They can tell you about what feels broken or frustrating. Hanging out with your customers helps you gain greater clarity on their world and how their perception of the problem differs from yours.

Now it’s time to ask about your solution, but carefully.

Get customers to tell you the truth

If you pick a handful of your favorite customers and ask them, “Would you be interested in my new product or service?” odds are, they’ll say yes. For a variety of reasons, including your charisma as an entrepreneur and the customer’s inclination towards politeness, you can very easily walk away from a set of customer conversations convinced that you have invented the next big thing. The danger is that you’ll then spend precious time, money and energy creating and launching that product or service only to be mystified when those same customers change their mind about buying it.

There’s a big difference between agreeing with a vendor over coffee versus having to pony up actual cash. That’s why Ash Maurya suggests testing your idea with initial pricing. In his book, “Running Lean,” Maurya writes, “(L)ack of strong customer ‘commitment’ can also be detrimental to optimal learning. Your job is to find early adopters who are at least as passionate about the problems you’re addressing as you are, and… who are willing to pay your fair price.”

At my own company, we say, “Nothing’s nothing, until the check clears,” so consider asking customers to put their money where their mouth is by asking for at least a verbal commitment to buy your new offering, or even better, make a deposit in exchange for a steep discount as one of your first customers.

There’s a universe of opportunity contained in a proper customer research approach, so don’t leave the building without it.

Jennie Wong, Ph.D. is a Charlotte-based executive coach, author of “Ask the Mompreneur,” and founder of the social shopping site CartCentric.com. Follow her on Twitter @DrJennieWong.
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