Delighting the Customer

There are many ways to get and keep customers engaged with a company — good customer service, quality products, lower cost than the competition, and my favorite is finding new ways to delight the customer. We (the tech industry) sometimes call this “innovation” and while that is not necessarily the wrong term, it doesn’t have anything to do with the customer.

We think because it’s new, shiny and super cool to us (the developers, product managers, data scientists, entrepreneurs, tech employees) that customers will understand the value we’ve created and buy or use this new feature. This causes feature bloat and a large percentage of product features are rarely or never used. Moreover, this leads inevitably to the next feature fallacy, the next feature you add will suddenly make people want to use the entire product. It’s a cyclical problem.

To delight the customer, you have to know the customer. This is no easy task. On top of that, customers are finicky. It’s hard to get on their schedule to talk to them, customer A wants a widget and customer B wants a wingding, and sometimes customers aren’t able to verbalize what they need. No matter what the situation is, it’s still up to you to figure it out.

The more a company innovates, the more customers expect. With each repetition it gets harder to produce a product or feature that delights the customer. As each new “delightful” feature is introduced the last iteration of the delightful feature digresses to a performance need and eventually to a basic need. This is visually described by the Kano diagram.

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The Car Cup Holder Example

My favorite example is the car cup holder. The first cup holder was in the 1983 Dodge Caravan. It was a customer delight through the eighties. Then when power locks and windows started become more widely available in the nineties, the cup holder slipped to a performance need and finally, to a basic need as the nineties progressed. Every car now comes with cup holders, they aren’t even on the spec sheet, and the sales person doesn’t call attention to them on the showroom floor. They are an expected feature. There are lots of other examples too, wheels on suitcases, cameras on phones, auto shut-off on coffeemakers and TVs. At one point in time these were the super cool features and today we just expect them.

To repeatedly delight the customer a company must stay in direct contact with their customers to understand their basic needs, product expectations and potential latent needs. Identifying and engaging with lead users is key to identifying the average user’s latent needs. The average user’s latent needs will be basic or expected needs for a lead user.

Gaining a solid understanding of how a customer uses your product is key to discovering latent needs and there is no better way to do that than by observing your customer in the environment they will use your product. Interviews are helpful but sometimes people respond to questions with what they think you want to hear and you lose some authenticity of their operation.

Observe Your Customers

Ask your customers if you can do an observational meeting. Meet them in their work environment, whatever that is, and just watch them do their job (or where consumers would use your product). Try to stay out of their way, ask that they don’t change how they work just because you are there. After some period of time, I like an hour, start asking them very simple questions so you can gain insight, while they continue to work. After they complete a task ask, “Why did you do that?” or “How many times do you perform that task a day?”

After completing your observations, then move on to interview questions. You need to understand why they bought or did not buy your product. Talk to people who you think have a problem that your product could solve. This conversation is not a sales conversation. Be clear about that to yourself and with the interviewee.

This is an informational mission. Give the interviewee a reason they will want to talk to you. People have finite time, the time they spend talking to you is time they aren’t doing something else, so make it worth their while. I’m not talking about bring them doughnuts and gift cards.

Give them something valuable, something they can’t get elsewhere… information.

You have industry insight they can’t (or won’t) get. You have talked with their competitors, suppliers, distribution operations, industry associations and government regulatory entities. As much information as you stand to get, you can provide back to the interviewee and that’s valuable to them.

The Empathic Lead User

This last option requires more preparation but can lead to a gold mine. An empathic lead user is an ordinary user who experiences a product in radically new ways. Lin and Seepersad designed an experiment discussed in, “Empathic Lead Users: The Effects of Extraordinary User Experiences on Customer Needs Analysis and Product Redesign.”

The hypothesis was that an empathic lead user interview technique will increase latent need discovery. The test group was put in a dark room with oven mitts on their hands and asked to set up a tent. When the users were interviewed, new ideas about how to improve the tents were made. Things like making the rods and grommets glow-in-the-dark or adding a blow-up feature. You can see how the environment could produce different latent needs.

This environment removed vision and limited tactile function, but the same experiment could have been conducted in rainy conditions on a rocky surface and would have presented different latent needs. Because of this, it’s important to run a series of empathic lead users tests with different environments and stimuli.

Discovering what delights your customer is no easy task and only gets harder as your product matures. Have you tried these discovery options? What’s worked for you? What other methods have you tried? Let me know in the comments.

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Christi Smith has a Master of Science in Technology Commercialization from McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. She has ten years of experience working in product management and currently manages SMART, a behavioral analytics, machine learning marketing tool for financial institutions at Q2ebanking. You can reach Christi at