There’s a simple formula to business success: Do what your customers say they want, they’ll reward you with money, and everybody will be satisfied.

The problem is that it’s not true.

OK, there’s SOME truth to it. If you don’t do what your customers value, they’re certainly not going to pay you money to deliver it to them, and your business will fail. So the problem is that this logic is much too simple.

First, let’s make a distinction between what customers SAY they want, and what they REALLY want. There’s many situations in which people like to talk about things on the surface, not their deeper emotions. I was talking with a business owner yesterday about the impending post-holiday rush of people who will be looking into their fitness, and one challenge is that people like to FEEL better about their health than to actually BE in better health. They’ll come to you asking for exercise programs, but lose interest as they realize that it’s going to take some time before they actually begin to feel better.

Another distinction is between what customers WANT and what they truly NEED. Their wants tend to change by the hour and by the day, and changing your business to track every fad can be quite difficult. On the other hand, if you’re able to address their deeper needs, you’re able to develop a much deeper relationship between you and your customers. They might ask for the latest technology to let them keep in touch with Grandma, when in fact their deeper need is to address the fact that they’re feeling disconnected from relatives scattered across the country.

The most important observation about addressing customer wants and needs is that they don’t really care if you can do it profitably. Intellectually, we can agree that we’d like our suppliers to stay in business for the long term and therefore they need to be profitable. We just rather that profit is made from other people, not us.

So this is the big challenge for businesses: To deliver products and services which address important needs, to make the connection between what customers want and what they need, and to do it profitably so that we can stay in business. But if you’re doing something that customers truly want and need, they’ll generally reward you with their repeat business, referrals, and a profitable balance sheet.

Maybe doing what customers say they want isn’t such a bad idea after all. But it’s just the starting point.

Carl Dierschow
Small Fish Business Coaching Fort Collins, CO USA