Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Giving customers what they really want

How do we find out what customers (or "clients" or "users" if you prefer) really want? This actually is a trick question, because the answer isn't "ask them what they want." I have two answers. The first is what I call the "laminating machine" story, which I heard some years decades ago, in a class called "Building Market-Focused Organizations." (Note: I'm making up some numbers here)
This consultant was working for a manufacturer of particle-board. The manufacturer was visiting one of his customers, a furniture maker.

The furniture-maker said his problem was that everything cost too much. The only thing he wanted the particle-board guy to do was lower his prices!

Then the consultant said, "What's that machine over there?"

Furniture guy: That's a laminating machine. We put 2-3 sheets of particle board and glue 'em together.

Consultant: why do you do that?

F: Because we need particle board 1¾" thick. Of course you can't buy board that thick, so we glue 2 sheets together under pressure, and heat, etc...

C: (to particle-board guy) Could you make particle board 1¾" thick?

Particle-board guy: Yes we can!

F: Whoa, could you really do that? I could save a lot of money...
The furniture guy never thought of "gotta laminate" as a problem. The particle-board guy asked what kind of problems they were facing, and the furniture guy would not have come up with "your board is too thin!" for a long, long time.

Of course the particle-board guy wouldn't have come up with "Offer them thicker particle board!" for a long time either. The rest of the story is that the particle-board vendor continued to work with the furniture guy to better understand how they could help his business. They captured this client for a long time; other particle-board guys could offer only lower prices, but this vendor knew the problems the furniture guy faced and able to offer things the other vendors couldn't even imagine.

How do we get people to look past what the customers complain about? How do we get them to figure out what the customers are trying to deliver to THEIR customers, and then figure out how to help them do that?

That's the $64,000 question. Or the $64×106 question as the case may be.

And the second answer?

The other thing that comes to mind is the Kano model of quality. Wikipedia's article is, surprisingly, not all that useful. This paper provides some examples ← No it doesn't; as of 2008-10-17 it's a 404. Hence...

Refer to the figure from the wikipedia article and let's talk cars for this example.

Let me describe a "basic" attribute: the car has doors that close securely. This is basic because if the doors don't work, you'll hate the car -- end of story. If the doors work perfectly, that gives a total "ho hum" kind of response, right? You expect the doors to work already! If the salesman talks about how well the doors close, you're gonna think he's got rocks in his head, right?

For "performance" attributes, one could imagine fuel economy, ease of handling, and a quiet ride for 3 examples. If someone offers a car that gets 300 miles per gallon, goes exactly where you want, and lets you drive on bumpy roads while being able to hear your wife whispering to you, those are all good things, correct? You'd be more interested in a car that did all that stuff, but a car with less of those could still be considered -- just not as avidly.

For "delight", imagine a car that could fly and also go underwater. Does the lack of such qualities concern you? No -- you never thought of them? But if it could do just one of those -- that would get your interest, would it not?

That's the basic(sic) idea anyway.

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