Should You Ask Your Customers What They Want? The Answer Isn’t Obvious

Is it really worth talking to consumers in the hope of coming up with new solutions and becoming more successful in your business? Or is it just a pointless waste of time and resources?

In my job as a consumer insights researcher at Klarna, I often come across comments like these from the startup world and developer community:

“We don’t believe in research.”

“You can’t ask consumers what they want, because they don’t know what they want.”

Even Henry Ford, the man who made the car affordable by using assembly lines for efficient production on a large scale, is often quoted as having said:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

He never actually said that (or so it seems according to people who have investigated the matter), but the message does have some truth to it.

Most of the time people don’t know what they want until they see it (unless they are outside-the-box thinkers themselves and have spent lots of time contemplating a specific problem). In other words, if I had been alive in the 1800’s and had been tasked with looking deeper into the transport sector, it’s extremely unlikely that during my consumer research some random farmer would have said:

“I want a car. Why don’t you guys invent one?”

More likely, I would have heard stories like “I have a cousin who lives 40 miles away. I haven’t seen her since her wedding seven years ago. She lives far from the railway and riding my horse there and back would take too long. I would feel bad leaving my wife and kids alone for so long with all the work that needs to get done on the farm. I would really like to meet her again, but sadly, that’s not possible.”

 

In this example, the consumer has expressed their needs as an unresolved problem, rather than as a neatly packaged product suggestion. From this we can see that consumer research isn’t about finding out what kind of solutions consumers want. It is more about discovering unmet needs and problem spaces. It is about getting to know consumers and their issues so well that you can surprise them in unexpected and great ways.

We can liken this to buying a birthday present for a really close friend. When you know someone inside and out, it’s much easier to come up with a birthday surprise that will blow them away than it is for someone you hardly know.

Consumer insights become most valuable when combined with innovative thinking. If you have an innovative mind, you are able to think of ways to surprise your friend that are so good and unexpected, they wouldn’t even have thought of something similar themselves – especially if you use all of your skills, knowledge, experience, connections and brains to come up with that solution.

That’s how consumer insights and innovation should work together.

How consumer insights can help you

Consumer insights will help you understand your consumer on multiple levels, digging deep into problem spaces, drivers of specific behaviours, satisfaction with current solutions, etc. The development team can then set their innovative and experienced minds to work, presenting out-of-the-box solutions to these problems that consumers would, most probably, not have thought of themselves.

Your consumers probably won’t tell you exactly what solutions, features or products to give them, but you will see their situation in new ways, understand what they care about, and get hints about what unmet needs they have. Ideally, you will also study their behaviour and ask follow-up questions such as “Why do you do it that way?” and “Why do you choose this over that?” That’s the level of understanding we go for when researching consumer insights about payments, shopping and personal finances at Klarna.

These insights aren’t just valuable for coming up with new solutions; they also inform us about how to communicate those solutions much more effectively. When we at Klarna looked at snoozing, for example, which is a feature that enables consumers to delay the due date of a payment for a very low fee, we noticed that many used the feature right before salary day. Faced with this behavioural pattern, it would be easy to assume that they snoozed for cash flow reasons, because there’s a simple logic to that. As it turns out, however, many people are in the habit of sitting down once a month to pay off all their bills at once, and are snoozing for the convenience of being able to continue doing just that. This consumer insight influences how we promote the snooze feature in the app. Saying things like “Are you short of money? Use the snooze button” wouldn’t land too well for the customers who snooze for convenience, would it?

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Why you should listen to your customers

Are there limitations to consumer research? Of course there are. Most society-changing breakthrough ideas – be it the first iPhone, the first car, or the invoice (pay later) solution for online shopping – don’t originate from consumer research. They come about because the inventors, or the inventor teams, identified a problem or opportunity themselves and set about finding a solution for it. They had to think deeply about it, often at length, and then use both their own imaginative capacity and the experience of being consumers themselves (with all the associated frustrations, problems and unsatisfied needs) to come up with something new.

However, without an ear closely listening in to consumers and getting to know them well, your competitive edge might not last. In order to stay relevant and continually surprise and delight your audience, you need to keep inventing and optimising products that are of interest to consumers; preferably solving real problems they face. Here it’s worthwhile reflecting upon the fact that consumers are not all alike and remembering that you as an innovator are not necessarily the target. There are other consumers out there who may face problems different from yours. This is why consumer research is essential for the continuous growth of innovative companies. You need to keep on identifying problem spaces that are real to your consumers and then work on innovative solutions to those problems.

So, for me, the answer is clear:

Yes.

It is worth talking to consumers.

About the author

Viveka Söderbäck

Consumer Insights Manager at Klarna

What I do during an average week: Follow up on consumer behaviours we observe to understand the reasons/drivers governing those behaviours. Talk to consumers to understand and map unsolved problems they face, test new ideas and concepts to evaluate and iterate them, follow up on satisfaction metrics to see where we need to put our attention.

One secret from my life: I am no creative mind, but I am fascinated by those lucky people who are. I love finding patterns and digging into behaviour, and I am very often surprised at how consumers reason, as this is often quite different from my own line of reasoning.

What I personally shop online: Everything; I rarely go to physical stores, except for day-to-day groceries.

What I want to bring as a columnist: A better understanding of consumer behaviour and why it’s so important to understand consumers deeply.

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