Anyone who has ever had to conceptualize a product or service has always tried to put their potential customers in the middle of their ideation phase and asked themselves what their customers really need.

There are two kinds of situations:

  1. If the customer is facing a problem, they can typically tell what they need or desire. I am calling such customers the “Enlightened Customer” (EC) because they already seem to know the issues they are facing.
    Typical examples would be a person who is already using a refrigerator but would love to have a refrigerator that consumes less power or cools faster.
  1. The second situation is where the customer cannot even perceive that they have a problem. If they do not have a problem, they have no needs. I am calling these customers the “Disenfranchised Customer” (DC). Though they have the right to a better lifestyle, they do not realize that it is possible.
    For example, if a person has cooked all their life using firewood, and if we were to ask them what they wanted, they would say that they wanted firewood that produced less smoke. They would hardly be able to visualize a product that generated zero smoke.

In both cases, it becomes incumbent upon the Product Team to really understand the lifestyle of their potential customers and decide how they want to solve the problem.

And unless you are your own customer, you cannot assume that you know what your target customer group really wants, needs, or aspires for.

This requires deep customer insights that can only come from ‘Customer Empathy.’

The most common method used to help people understand how to ‘Empathize’ with another person, is to tell them “to stand in the other person’s shoes.”

In my opinion, this is an incomplete instruction. It should read “to stand in the other person’s shoes; after removing your own”.

The difficult part is of course to remove one’s own pair before standing in someone else’s shoes.

The shoes here of course refer to your prejudices and biases. The prejudice and bias arise from your socio-economic background, your education, your religious beliefs, your professional experiences, and of course your life experiences. If you were born and brought up in an urban setting, it may be very difficult to empathize with a person who has spent their whole life in a rural setting.

And that’s why we create Customer Personas

Even if you have a profile similar to that of your target customer base, remember that you are just one individual and may not be truly reflective of the average persona in the target group. You, therefore, need to walk that extra kilometer in those pair of shoes of your target customer base to truly understand their needs, desires, and aspirations.

There are many tools and techniques to understand your target customer persona better. To name a few:

  1. Travel a customer journey in their typical day. The menu layout for many of the MS Office products was decided after watching users work with their products. This helped define the most common operations performed by the user, making such features easy to access.
  2. Market surveys are of course a great way to reach out to a large target segment. With all its pros and cons, it is still the preferred way to understand what would truly satisfy the customer. In today’s world, digital marketing and outreach programs make it relatively easy to reach the target customer base at volume.
  3. Using prototypes to test the market is of course another technique that helps in understanding exactly what the customer expects from the product. User focus groups are especially popular amongst white goods manufacturers.
It is only the hubristic that replace Research with Assumptions

The kind of technique you use will of course depend on your product or service; and your target customer persona.

Remember that if you do not undertake a rigorous and robust process for understanding your customer, you will most likely get an unpleasant surprise when your product or service hits the market.

It is better to ask your customer before designing the product; than to have the product ready, and have your customer ignore it completely.

Even if you pick the right technique to understand your customer, you will have to participate in naïve listening. Don’t be tempted to add your “own-value” to what the customer is telling you. It doesn’t matter what you think the customer wants. The most important thing is to ask the customer what they want.

And finally to reemphasize, learn to remove your own shoes before donning that of someone else’s.

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