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Customer Behavior

It Isn’t the Consumers Job To Know What They Want

There are two schools of thought among business leaders regarding how much they should listen to their customers:

  1. Many believe that Steve Jobs was right when he said, “Customers don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
  2. Others believe that it would be foolhardy to ignore what your customers are saying – after all, without them you don’t have a business.

Value Creation versus Value Delivery

Business schools teach their students the concept of ‘Value Creation’ and ‘Value Delivery’.

Value Creation is what happens when you create something completely new. It’s what Steve Jobs preached. The iPod, iPhone and iPad are all good examples of people not knowing that they wanted these products because they simply didn’t exist.


Value Delivery is when you take an existing product and improve it in a way that helps you win the customer’s business. This may be adding new features or by simply making them easier to use. Sir Richard Branson has built his huge empire doing this.

He has never invented a product, but his Virgin group of companies have gone into industries in which they perceive the current operators to be delivering bad service or poor products – and simply done it better. Each time they enter a new market, Virgin listen to the needs and complaints of the consumers within that sector and build their company around solving them, thereby grabbing massive market share each time.Sir Richard Branson quote


Could you really argue that either Steve Jobs or Sir Richard Branson have got it wrong?

If I asked people what they wanted, they would have replied: “Faster Horses”

The famous quote from Henry Ford is often used alongside the one from Jobs to argue that customer opinion should take a back seat when innovation is the primary objective.

However, I use this quote to illustrate a different point. One that I think is crucial to creating the right strategy, as well as better products and services, moving forward:

Customers will offer valuable insights for a business – if you ask them the right questions. If the feedback is generic or lacks quality, it is because the wrong questions have been asked and that is the fault of the business. You want good, factual data on customer pain points and expectations  – those ‘facts’ can then become a plan or ‘creative brief’ to deliver what customers really want and need – or to let the designers loose to innovate as far as their imagination will take them.

Even if you aren’t trying to be innovative, simply asking, “What do you want?” isn’t going to get a useful reply. They are going to say, “Faster Horses” as Mr. Ford predicted. In her book When Old Technologies Were New, Carolyn Marvin, Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School points out that throughout history people have conceptualized the technological future only as “a fancier version of the present.”

To create and deliver value, you have to understand what your customer’s real problems are, what they want to solve or accomplish. Guessing and presuming won’t get you far. You don’t convince people to buy your products or solutions if you neglect their needs — you do it by identifying the problems that people want solved and showing them something they actually would want to buy.

That’s what Jobs did. He wanted to solve the problem of his CD’s being clunky and getting scratched; he wanted to have “A thousand songs in my pocket…”. The difference being that this was his problem and his wish – and because of the kind of guy he was, he presumed everyone else must have the same problem too! As it turned out, he was right.

But for us mere mortals, it’s safer to be asking the right questions of your customers and working it out from there.

Guided Selling to Help Shoppers Understand Value and Choose The Right Products

For every ‘Value Creator’ there are a thousand ‘Value Deliverers’ trying to improve on what’s already been invented.

The result is that when a customer is shopping for a new product, such as a car, a camera or a television, they are faced with hundreds of similar options to choose from. Unless they are experts in that subject, it is almost impossible for them to distinguish between them all and find ‘the best option’ for their needs. Add to that the fact that we’re all different, with differing needs and requirements, so there is no hard and fast rule as to which one item is ‘the best’.

Effectively guiding shoppers, finding out about their needs, and helping them choose what they really need is important for retailers and brands to stand out.

Guided vs traitional online decision making

That’s why Guided Selling solutions such as product advisors or product selectors are a valuable asset in any store. They help customers through their decision making process.

And how do they do that? By asking the right questions of the customer. Questions that will very quickly build a solid picture of the type of use the customer has in mind for that product.

Getting the right answers means you will have rapidly narrowed the customer’s options down to a shortlist. You will have explained (and pre-sold) any new tech advancements along the way that would be relevant, based on the answers given to the questions.

Imagine trying to research all the options and advancements in televisions yourself, deciding what tech is valid and what isn’t. What items best suit your particular needs? This type of uncertainty and ambiguity in the purchase process is your sales’ kryptonite. Customers want to be helped out, so why wouldn’t you do it?



As you can see, asking questions of your customers is vital.

But it’s about asking the right questions, listening to the answers and using them to build a picture of their requirements. How you deal with that can be practical or innovative – both are effective techniques – depending on what sort of business you are.

You could always try and guess or base it on your own wants. But what worked at Apple may not work for your company.
Remember, you are not Steve Jobs!



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Phil Cave is the founder of People Shaped Marketing. He helps companies like Samsung, BBC, Ricoh, RBS, Virgin, Lloyds, Stagecoach and Ferrari grow their profits through his unique methodologies. He has been repeatedly labelled as one of the "Top Digital Experts in Europe" and "One of the World's leading minds in Persona-driven Marketing". He has worked at some of the biggest agencies in London before owning, running and eventually selling his own successful digital marketing consultancy.