“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford
The job of an innovator is never done. There are always problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and new value to create.
And when it comes to building game-changing products or solutions, should you build what you want or what customers want?
Through my experience of working with startups and new businesses at Microsoft for over 20 years, I’ve come to realize that businesses that prioritize their customers and align their vision with their needs are the ones that achieve long-term success.
By placing the customer at the heart of their operations, these businesses are able to better understand their needs and pain points, which enables them to develop products and services that truly meet their requirements.
And, by aligning their vision with the needs of their customers, these businesses are able to create a culture of trust and loyalty, which can result in improved customer retention and increased brand value.
But which really comes first–the vision or the value? And how do you really create that market clarity?
In this article, we’ll explore some practical strategies for balancing your vision with customer needs and creating a customer-driven culture that can help your business thrive. Whether you’re a seasoned entrepreneur or just starting out, these insights will help you stay focused on what really matters – your customers.
Build What You Want or What Customers Want?
I remember a significant failure of a product at Microsoft. What the product team learned was that they built something they wanted, but very few customers shared the same challenge they did.
It was a great leadership moment and learning opportunity.
The pivot that I saw the team take is they really started to focus on personas and scenarios after that. They also started to validate with customers much earlier to inform their vision and get feedback.
Ultimately, they figured out who their target customer really was and then wrapped their business around them. But they also stayed true to their vision, mission, and values, while using the customer as their North Star.
How Do Customers Articulate Their Pains, Needs, and Desired Outcomes?
Ultimately, what I learned is that you win if you can articulate your solution using the language of your customers. When you learn how your customers articulate their pains, needs, and desired outcomes, you are on path:
- How do they talk about their pains and needs?
- How do they phrase their challenges?
- How do they phrase what they want?
It comes down to validating your idea with customers, and pivoting if what you’re doing isn’t working.
Demand generation is hard. If your customers don’t know they want something, even if you have the right answer or a better solution to their problem, your words can miss by a mile.
That’s why if you know the words and the language your customers already use, selling is simple.
It’s why empathy is such a big deal when it comes to building better products your customers will love.
You get them. You feel their pains, their needs, and desired outcomes.
It’s why SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is actually a big deal for learning the language of your customers.
Once I realized I could use SEO to learn the language of my customers and size the market, it was a total game changer. It’s one of the best lenses into customer demand and it’s a great way to support data-driven decisions with actual questions and tasks that customers reveal.
AirBnB Pivoted from “Places to Stay” to “Experiences”
A great example of using customer language to understand their needs and desires is the success of Airbnb.
In the early days of the company, the founders were struggling to attract customers and get them to book through their platform.
They realized that people weren’t looking for a place to stay, they were looking for an experience.
By listening to their customers’ language, they realized that travelers were searching for unique and personalized experiences, and not just a generic hotel room.
Airbnb pivoted their messaging and began highlighting the unique experiences that hosts could offer, such as staying in a treehouse or a houseboat, and this led to a significant increase in bookings.
By understanding the language of their customers, Airbnb was able to better meet their needs and ultimately build a better business.
Quotes About Building What You Want
- “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” — Steve Jobs
- “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ― Howard Thurman
- “Success is not to be pursued; it is to be attracted by the person you become.” — Jim Rohn
- “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford
- “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin
- “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” — Peter Drucker
- “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” — Peter Drucker
- “The customer is not always right. Sometimes they are just confused.” — Richard Branson
- “Don’t find customers for your products; find products for your customers.” — Seth Godin
- “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” — Bill Gates
- “The customer’s perception is your reality.” — Kate Zabriskie
- “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” — Alan Kay
Attracting Success vs. Chasing the Market
Howard Thurman’s quote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive,” is a powerful reminder to find what truly motivates us.
But once we find it, how do we attract success and opportunities?
One way is to focus on attracting rather than chasing.
Attracting means knowing the kind of people we want to work with and the kind of work we want to do. It aligns with Jim Rohn’s advice that success is not to be pursued but rather attracted by the person we become.
To attract success, we need to work on ourselves and our personal growth.
As we become better and more capable people, success will naturally follow. So find what makes you come alive and work on becoming the person who attracts success.
What is the Best Advice? (Do you build what you want to build, or do you build what customers ask you to build?)
The best advice around the question of building what you want to build versus what customers ask you to build is to find a balance between the two.
Neither end of the spectrum is a good place.
You don’t want to build something nobody wants, and you don’t want to just build what customers ask for, if you can’t find the alignment with your purpose, passion, and values, so you can build in a sustainable way.
Really, it’s more “integration” than balance and it’s about looking for the intersection.
It’s adapting and pivoting away from what’s not working towards what’s working to generate energy and create new value.
It’s essential to build what customers want and need, but it’s also important to inject your vision and creativity into the product or service you’re building.
As Steve Jobs once said, “It’s not about customers asking you to build something; it’s about having the insight to know what they’re going to want before they do.”
You need to understand your customers and their needs deeply, but you also need to bring your expertise and innovation to create something that will truly delight and surprise them.
Ultimately, the key is to be customer-centric while staying true to your vision and values.
Striking the Balance: How to Align Your Vision with Customer Needs
Here is a way to strike the balance between building to customer’s needs vs. building to your vision:
- Start with a clear vision: It’s important to have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve with your product or service. This will help guide your decisions and ensure that you stay on track.
- Conduct market research: Conducting market research can help you identify customer needs and preferences. This can include surveys, focus groups, or even analyzing social media data. The goal is to gain a deep understanding of what your customers want and need.
- Prioritize customer feedback: When making decisions about your product or service, it’s important to consider customer feedback. This can help you identify areas where you need to make improvements and ensure that you’re meeting customer needs.
- Use your vision as a guide: While it’s important to consider customer needs, it’s also important to stay true to your vision. Use your vision as a guide and ensure that any changes you make align with your overall goals.
- Test and iterate: Once you’ve made changes based on customer feedback, it’s important to test and iterate. This means gathering feedback on your changes and making further adjustments as needed.
- Stay flexible: Balancing your vision with customer needs is an ongoing process. It’s important to stay flexible and be willing to make changes as needed to ensure that you’re meeting customer needs while also staying true to your vision.
What is the problem if you ignore your passion or vision or values?
Ignoring your passion, vision, or values can lead to a lack of fulfillment and purpose in your work.
If you prioritize solely what customers want and ignore your own desires and values, you may end up feeling unfulfilled, disengaged, and even resentful of your work.
Additionally, if you only build what customers ask for without considering your own vision and ideas, you may miss out on opportunities for innovation and differentiation in the market.
It’s important to find a balance between customer needs and your own passion and vision to create a sustainable and fulfilling business.
What is the problem if you ignore or don’t use customer feedback to validate your vision or idea or product or solution?
If you ignore or don’t use customer feedback to validate your vision or idea or product or solution, you risk creating something that no one actually wants or needs.
This can lead to poor sales, negative feedback, and even failure of the product or business. In addition, ignoring customer feedback can damage the relationship between the business and its customers, potentially leading to loss of trust and loyalty.
It is essential to take customer feedback seriously and use it to guide the development and improvement of your product or solution.
How To Think About “Faster Horses”?
Henry Ford’s quote about faster horses is often used as a metaphor for the need to innovate and think beyond what customers are currently asking for. It emphasizes the importance of anticipating and solving problems that customers may not even be aware of yet, rather than simply responding to their explicit requests.
However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean ignoring customer feedback or needs altogether. Rather, it’s about finding a balance between pursuing a bold vision and ensuring that it still aligns with customer needs and desires.
To do this, it’s crucial to conduct market research, gather customer feedback, and test and iterate on your ideas. This will help you validate your assumptions and ensure that you’re addressing real pain points and delivering value to your customers.
Ultimately, the key is to use customer feedback as a guide rather than a rulebook. It’s important to stay true to your vision and values, while also being open to feedback and willing to pivot or adjust course as needed to better meet customer needs.
Jobs to be Done (JTBD)
Jobs to be Done (JTBD) is a framework that helps businesses understand the underlying motivations and needs of customers. By understanding the “job” that customers are trying to accomplish, businesses can create products and services that meet their needs more effectively.
The Jobs to be Done (JTBD) framework was first introduced by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in the early 2000s. However, since then, several other scholars and practitioners have contributed to its development and application. Some notable figures in the JTBD space include Bob Moesta, Tony Ulwick, and Alan Klement.
In the context of building things people don’t need or want, JTBD can help businesses avoid this problem by focusing on the customer’s desired outcome or end result. Rather than asking customers what they want or need, which can often result in surface-level or inaccurate responses, JTBD asks why they are trying to accomplish a certain task or job.
For example, if a customer is trying to find a way to commute to work, simply asking them what kind of transportation they want might not provide the full picture. However, if you ask them what their goal is in commuting to work, such as saving time or reducing stress, you can better understand what they truly need and design a product or service that meets those needs more effectively.
By using JTBD, businesses can better align their products or services with what customers actually want and need, rather than relying solely on assumptions or guesswork. This can lead to more successful and sustainable businesses that provide real value to their customers.
How To Align Jobs to Be Done with Your Vision
The Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) framework is not about building what you want or your vision and values in isolation from customer needs.
Instead, it is about identifying the jobs that your customers want to get done and then developing products or services that address those jobs in a way that aligns with your vision and values.
To use JTBD, you need to start by understanding the jobs that your customers are trying to do. This means talking to customers, observing their behavior, and understanding their needs and desires. Once you have a good understanding of the jobs your customers are trying to do, you can use that information to develop products or services that address those needs.
The key is to focus on the outcome that the customer is trying to achieve, rather than the specific product or solution they are using. This allows you to be more flexible in how you address the customer’s needs and enables you to develop products or services that align with your vision and values while still meeting the customer’s needs.
So, to balance your vision with customer needs, you can use the JTBD framework to identify the jobs that your customers are trying to do, and then develop products or services that align with your vision and values while still addressing those needs.
Variations of the Question to Help You Find Your Version of Customer-Connection
I find that asking myself a similar question, but in slightly different ways, triggers different and often better answers. It’s a simple hack I use to think about an idea better, deeper, broader.
It helps me make more distinctions, and the more distinctions you make, the more profound your thinking can become.
Here are variations off the question, “Do you build what customers want or do you build to your vision?”
- Should you prioritize customer needs or your own vision when building products?
- Is it more important to build what customers want or to stay true to your vision?
- How do you balance customer feedback with your own vision when developing products?
- Should you rely on customer feedback or your own instincts when building products?
- Is it better to build products based on customer requests or to innovate based on your own vision?
- How can you incorporate customer needs while also staying true to your company’s vision?
- Do you prioritize your vision or customer requests when building products?
- Should you focus on building what customers want or what you think they need?
- How can you balance customer input and your own creativity when developing products?
- Should you let customer feedback or your own passion drive product development?
It’s a Balancing and Integration Act
Prioritize understanding your customers’ needs and pain points while aligning your org’s vision and strategy around meeting those needs.
Balancing your vision with customer needs is crucial to building a successful business. While it’s important to have a clear vision and mission, it’s equally important to listen to your customers and understand their needs, pains, and desired outcomes.
By speaking the language of your customers and incorporating their feedback into your product development process, you can ensure that you’re building something that people actually want and need.
Ultimately, finding the right balance between your vision and customer needs requires empathy, flexibility, and a willingness to adapt and evolve as you learn more about your customers and their preferences.
By prioritizing the customer and aligning your vision with their needs, you can build a sustainable and successful business that creates real value for your customers.
Learn How To Build What Your Customers Want
Here are a few very good books that help you build what your customers want and need.
The Customer-Driven Culture: A Microsoft Story: Six Proven Strategies to Hack Your Culture and Develop a Learning-Focused Organization, by Travis Lowdermilk and Monty Hammontree
The Customer-Driven Culture offers a roadmap for leaders who want to build a culture that is aligned around customer needs and create a sustainable competitive advantage in today’s rapidly changing business environment.
It’s the story of how Microsoft transformed its culture to become more customer focused. Travis and Monty provide six proven strategies for leaders who want to create a learning-focused organization that prioritizes customer needs. The book includes practical advice, case studies, and real-world examples of how these strategies have been implemented at Microsoft.
The Customer-Driven Playbook: Converting Customer Feedback into Successful Products, by Travis Lowdermilk and Jessica Rich
This is a comprehensive guide for how companies can use customer feedback to build successful products.
Travis and Jessica emphasize the importance of creating a customer feedback loop that enables companies to continuously gather and incorporate customer feedback into their product development process. The book includes practical advice, case studies, and actionable steps for implementing a customer-driven approach to product development.
Blue Ocean Strategy, Expanded Edition: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, by W. Chan Kim, Renée A. Mauborgne, and Renee Mauborgne
This is more about building to unmet needs in the market and disrupting the market through disruptive innovation. It’s a business strategy book that advocates for creating new market spaces with little or no competition, rather than competing in crowded and highly competitive markets (the “red oceans”).
The authors outline practical frameworks and tools for identifying and creating these “blue oceans” of uncontested market space and provide case studies and examples of companies that have successfully implemented this approach.
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