Finding (And Satisfying) The Unarticulated Need
By Jim Buell
What if Henry Ford had only listened to his customer? I don’t think he would have been nearly as successful as he was.
Henry Ford is quoted as saying “If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses”. He was right. His customer couldn’t imagine the car. I picture Henry using focus groups and deciding that what he needed to do was become a master horse breeder.
Thank goodness, that is not what Mr. Ford did. Yes, Henry Ford was a brilliant inventor and had great faith in his own vision. But did his vision ignore his customer? No. Instead of only listening to his customer he really looked at them and figured out what they needed. Farmers needed to get their families into town for church or shopping. City people needed to get around town without worrying about feeding and caring for animals. And pedestrians needed to cross streets without stepping in . . . well, you know.
I would rather spend a half day with a single customer than read a survey from 100 customers. It is that deep dive into your customers’ world where you discover that great competitive difference. Let me give you an example.
Some years ago I was asked to launch a new brand of frozen pasta for a foodservice division of a Fortune 500 company. The initial ground work had been laid prior to my being brought in. Customer surveys had been completed which indicated that our customers cared most about price and quality. The going in plan was to focus on the highest quality ingredients and price our product 10% below the market leader.
I doubted that this strategy would give us the clear and compelling point of difference needed for any new product to find a secure spot in the market. So I went to our target customer (college & universities) and really tried to learn. Instead of conducting a market survey I spent a day shadowing the foodservice director at my alma mater. I talked to him about how he is evaluated. What his goals were. I worked to understand the most important topics (on and below the surface) at his staff’s meetings. Not once did I hear the need to purchase even higher quality foods (the market was filled with very high quality offerings). I didn’t observe any deep concern about the cost of the food they purchased. What was important to this team was termed “increased participation”. They woke up every morning trying to figure out how to get the students at their school to use the cafeteria more frequently.
Really? That was it? When I thought about it this made sense. Most of the costs of a college foodservice operation were fixed (facility, equipment, even labor). Students purchased a set amount of funds to spend at the school at the beginning of the year. If “junior” ate at the school cafeteria more often it was likely he would be forced to call his parents around Thanksgiving asking for another thousand to be deposited in his foodservice account. Those late deposits were where the foodservice operation got its profits.
When we launched our new line of pasta we did not ignore quality or price, but we placed are sharpest focus on helping college foodservice directors increase participation. In exchange for frequent menu placements in their cafeteria we offered a promotion that would allow the school’s foodservice staff run a special Italian theme meal, complete with a 10 speed Italian bike we awarded. Armed with this our sales team sold 6 of the 10 largest college foodservice operations in the nation during our first year and we created a $13 M business.
Yes, listen to what your customers say. But do more than that. Spend time with them in their operation. Watch what they do. Understand how they are evaluated. And then see how your product or service can meet that all important unarticulated need.
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Jim Buell is a Strategic Partner of Oak Hill Business Partners, helping companies build their brand by developing compelling customer focused solutions.