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In your innovation journey, you will have to talk to your customers to find out whether your new idea works for them. After all, we know that the number one reason for innovations falling flat is that they solve a problem the customer does not have.

The conversation may be early on, trying to identify a market problem worth tackling. It may be later, trying to find a new market for a technology, or pivot to a new opportunity after the first customer sector identified did not work out.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? We have seen tools like Strategyzer’s Value Proposition Canvas. We know we should understand the customer ‘jobs to be done’ and ‘pain points’, but somehow, we don’t get what we need. We talk to them, we send out surveys, we spend time on it, and it still goes wrong.

And that is the problem. We don’t get the information we need from customers because we talk to them; we don’t listen to them.

You have to listen!

A few years ago, I took part in a workshop on customer understanding. At the start, they tasked some of us with making sure we had the right solution for a customer, played by a facilitator. The rest of the group listened in and noted how many times we asked a question and how many times we made a statement.

The result was embarrassing! Statements outnumbered questions five to one. We started with a couple of questions to get the conversation going, homed in on a possible solution, and then switched to persuading the ‘customer’ that our initial guess was right. We were pitching and selling, not inquiring. It was a real shock to us. We were supposed to be finding stuff out, and we did that not by asking questions, but by making flat statements about our own thinking.

It seems an obvious mistake to avoid, but it is one that creative, driven entrepreneurs and innovators fall into easily. Let’s face it, we like to play a central role in conversations, and we like to air our ideas and thoughts. And the more interesting the idea, the louder and more dominant we become!

So how can we avoid this mistake? We must listen. Give the customer our full attention and try to understand their needs and wants and where they come from. It is difficult, but we can train ourselves to do it. Not only must we listen, we must also help the customer tell us what they want. You can’t just say “what do you want from our product?” and expect a useful answer.  A favourite aphorism of the best sales director I ever worked with was “ask a customer what they want, and they will say – the same as I have today, only 10% cheaper!”. I also saw early in my career that if you ask a customer what they want, they are likely to tell you what they think they can have, not what they need or what is possible. The problem with understanding the genuine needs of customers is at the heart of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma.

“ask a customer what they want, and they will say – the same as I have today, only 10% cheaper!”

How we ask the questions and focused listening can get to the unspoken needs and drivers. Here are some methods that have worked for me.

  • Ask about goals and problems, not what they think the solution might be.
  • Ask open questions and practice active listening.
  • Build rapport.
  • Adapt to the customer’s preferred social style.

Goals and problems, not solutions

The first point is crucial. Many customers will have an idea in their minds about how you can help. They will tell you exactly what they want from a new product or service, but that is conditioned by what they think your capabilities are and their own thoughts on workable solutions. You must get behind that to their underlying goals and the difficulties they face.

Open questions and active listening

The best way to do that is a combination of open questioning and active listening. There are two basic types of question. Open questions encourage someone to talk. They are about uncovering background and revealing needs. They use words like who, what, when, where and how. They are ‘tell me’ questions that cannot be answered yes or no. Closed questions are the opposite. A question that can be answered yes or no, or allows a choice from a list of options, is closed. They are confirming a thought, not exploring it.

Active listening goes with open questions. It is about fully engaging with the other people in the conversation. It starts with giving our full attention. Humans are very social animals and are superbly sensitive to what is in the minds of people we talk to. We know when someone is thinking about the next question they need to ask or trying to frame a clever interjection. Pay attention!

Part of active listening is to show that you are receiving and understanding the information you are being given. Reflect back what you are hearing. Repeat key data or feelings and check that you got it right. Summarise what you have been told – “so what you are saying is…?”. Interpret it – “does that mean…?”. It gives people confidence that they are being heard, and that you understand. It encourages them to go further; to respond to your summary with a correction or more explanation. Don’t overdo the reflecting. If it becomes too robotic, it is obvious and you sound like a comedy psychoanalyst.

A good method is to ask a broad open question, and then to probe for detail with more open questions. A variant on the method for getting to root causes by asking why five times. Then summarise what you have heard. If they agree with your summary, ask a new open question based on those key points. If you dry up, summarise. It usually provides a launch point for the next phase of the conversation.

Rapport – mirroring the words, music, and dance

To get a customer to open up, they should feel comfortable with you. Building a rapport really helps. One of the best ways to do this is to ‘mirror’ the person you are talking to. One of my teachers talked about mirroring the words, the music and the dance.

Use the same vocabulary that they do. When you reflect, summarise, or interpret, use the words they use. Pay attention to their tone, pitch, volume, and pace. If they are slow and thoughtful, be the same. If you hurry them you will break the rapport. And mirroring posture, expression, gesture, and breathing is something we naturally do in a conversation we are enjoying. Look around a party and you can immediately see who is fully engaged and who is not.

Finally, think about preferred social styles. Are they emotionally open or closed and are they naturally ‘ask’ or ‘tell’? Diagnosing their preferred style helps you to adapt to get the best interaction.

Give your whole attention, it’s worth it

This is not natural for many of us, but we can learn. Practise the techniques until they are automatic. Be interested in what your customers say; it is vital for successful innovation. Don’t accept superficial answers because they agree with your prejudices; always look for deeper truths. Give your whole attention to the conversation and encourage them to say more.

It is exhausting, but worth it.

How to Understand Your Customers? Listen to Them!
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