don’t ask your customers what they want


Steve Jobs once, or perhaps more than once, expressed concern about the value of market research – suggesting that there is no point in asking consumers what they want because they rarely if ever know. He argued that marketing research was of limited value in identifying innovation opportunities.

Despite being a big fan of marketing research I would argue that Steve Jobs was 100% correct. Indeed there is plenty of research demonstrating that consumers and people and general find it very difficult to identify what they will want into the future and indeed what they might pay for it.

Before going on, let me explain the difference between market and marketing research. Market research involves developing an understanding of the market as it is today. Marketing research is about understanding opportunities and problems and the actions that might be taken to address both.

I would argue that neither can accurately predict the future. The best that can do is tell you how things are today – such you can use that information to develop and assess scenarios. Politicians often tell us the ‘the only poll that counts is the one on polling day’. There are of course absolutely right! All the interim polling does is estimate how the market views the landscape on that day – providing an indication of the acceptance or otherwise of actions and utterances of the government and opposition groups at that point.

One of the people I respect most in business today is James Dyson, the engineers responsible for the Dyson Vacuum Cleaner and many other innovative products. Dyson set about inventing his vacuum cleaner after seeing how difficult vacuum cleaning is and the various issues people experience when using a conventional cleaner. He followed a similar path with his other inventions – and of course the results are a matter of record.

Today James, or as some might call him – Sir James, is a very wealthy man, largely on the back of these inventions.

This example highlights the power and potential that comes from identifying and understanding problems. In the end event, we all have problems and we would all like solutions to those problems. But the problem one individual is having may or may not be the same as those others are having and before we invent new products and services, or new approaches, we need to quantify the prevalence of that problem.

I would argue that it is here that marketing research is very helpful and often essential – given that few people I know genuinely have the understanding of their market necessary to make accurate predictions without such research – no matter how clever or insightful they might think they are.

Marketing research is a very powerful tool for identifying:

  • The problems consumers are having with a task, situation or circumstance.
  • The problems consumers are having with a product, service or organisation.
  • The barriers to purchase or repeat purchase and referral.

In some cases business people we can have informed insights and the research can quantify the insight and see if it warrants attention. In other circumstances we may not have any idea what is wrong or where the opportunities are and the research will identify and quantify.

The business people can than think laterally on the basis of hard data about the best solutions for the consumer and the business.

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