Getting the voice of the customer to better create products and services

"Products and services that don't solve peoples' problems, or don't solve them in a competitive cost, fail," writes Abbie Griffin in her chapter Obtaining Customer Needs for Product Development [pdf] in the book: The PDMA Handbook of New Product Development.

To build these products or services, organizations must understand exactly what people need and make a product to match those needs, Griffin writes. There's a second way: give people something they didn't know they needed; create a new technology that solves problems people may or may not know they have. "Although teams can be successful this way, it is a far riskier path to success." 

The real goal is learning how to talk to customers, asking their needs and adapt your products or services to meet those needs. This is far easier than it sounds. First, Griffin says, many firms speak only generally to their customers. So they come back with only general needs. "The key is to talk to customers using appropriate methods and asking questions customer can answer and that can provide information useful for developing new patterns," she writes. 

Another important lesson: Only ask customers to provide information they can, in fact, provide. A whole list exists of things customers cannot help you with: 

1. They can't tell you what exactly you should develop. Features, looks, etc. should not come from customers, but from your team. 
2. Customers also cannot provide reliable information on what they have not experienced or do not know firsthand. If they aren't ebook users, don't ask them to weigh in on a new reader.

On the other hand: 

Customers can provide reliable information about the things with which they are familiar and knowledgeable or that they directly have experienced. A customer can provide the subset of the needs information that is relevant to them in an overall category of customer problems. They can articulate the problems and needs they have. They can indicate the problems and features they currently use to meet their needs, where these products fall short of solving their problems, and where they excel. The only way that a full set of customer needs for a product area can be obtained is by coming to understand the detailed needs of a number of customers, each of whom contributes a piece of the needs information.

The bottom line: Understand customer problems and how these problems impact how they perform their job or live their lives. 

This means asking customers very in-depth questions about how they obtain or acquire and use products and services to fulfill these particular needs. Ask them why they use something that way. Get as much of the context as you can. You need to ask patrons why they did something, what worked well and what did not work well. 

"Please tell me about the last time you searched for a book to borrow."