Are You Solving the Right Problem For Your Customers?

If you’re in the business of making a product, providing a service, or if you in any way interact with people… you’re probably not talking to them enough.

We’re all in the business of helping people, improving their lives, or making them happy. But do we actually know what will do that for them? What they value most? Why they make the decisions they do? Empathy and understanding aren’t just gooshy words you can put on your company’s manifesto, they directly impact business success. If we don’t understand our customer’s problems, the likelihood of solving them is slim to none.

Here’s one of my favorite stories about the importance of stepping back to truly understand what your customers need (originally shared on HBR.)

Years ago a real estate developer was creating luxury condos for empty-nesters looking to downsize after their kids had moved out of the house. It had all the features they thought would matter most: squeakless floors, leak-proof basements, a competitive price, etc. And while they had lots of people come through the model condo and express interest, when it came to actually making the purchase, they simply weren’t committing.

They tried spicing up the design, even asking potential buyers what features they might like to see added. One focus group of potential buyers suggested bay windows, but even after they were added to the design they still weren’t getting anyone to actually purchase.

Finally the developers decided there’s something else going on, something both the buyers and his team were missing. They brought in Bob Moesta who said they needed to sit down and talk to these people, not just as home-buyers but as human beings. He decided to skip over talking about the features they wanted, but the problems they were actually facing.

He sat down one-on-one with potential buyers to understand what they were thinking and feeling during the entire buying process. From evaluating options, to boxing up belongings. After a number of conversations, it turned out it wasn’t the new home that was causing them issue, it was letting go of their old homes. Even more specifically: what to do with the dining table.

From holiday meals and big family moments, to homework sessions and craft time, the dining table was a monument to what family life used to look like. Downsizing to a smaller place meant the dining table wasn’t going to be able to make the move with them. To the surprise of both the couples and the developers, the idea of losing the dining table proved to be an emotional stumbling block many simply couldn’t get over.  Moving is hard enough, but the table wasn’t just a piece of furniture, it was an important part of the family story. As the team realized later “I went in thinking we were in the business of new-home construction, but I realized we were in the business of moving lives.”

With this new insight, the designers and developers went back to the drawing board. They borrowed square footage from the bedroom to enlarge the dining room to make sure they could still host and have those important moments—maybe even around the same table. They offered free moving services to make the actual act of moving less painful. And they offered free on-site storage free for two years so couples could see what would work in their new layout, or find an appropriate home for the pieces that didn’t.

The results were dramatic. In a year when industry sales were off 49%, they actually grew business by 25%. The excitement around the new design was so great, the developers were actually able to raise the prices enough to cover the new free services and then some.

By understanding the full context in which their customers were making decision and listening deeply to uncover the problems that mattered most, the developers were able to provide a solution that addressed all their customer’s concerns and met all their needs—even the ones they didn’t know they had in the first place!

If your business is feeling stuck by a certain problem and you’ve tried throwing all the changes and improvements you can think of, there’s a good chance you’re not solving the right problem for your customers. A great first step is to step back and just listen to your customers. Don’t worry about what they want, first just focus on understanding what their problems are. Once you really understand their problems, only then can you go back and determine the best solution for it.

Alex DennistonComment