Sometimes Your Customers Just Want The Box


kid robotThe holidays are coming! And do you know what that means?

It means you’re about to spend the next two months stressing over what to get your little one. You’re going to take that trip down memory lane to recall what you wanted at that special age. You’re going to get up early in the morning and get elbow-happy knocking down other parents in the toy aisle of Kmart. And then, when you’ve finally secured the perfect gift, exactly what you wanted at age three/five/ten, you will watch in horror as your child tosses it aside and spends the rest of the day playing inside the cardboard box it came in. It happens every year.

And worse, it happens every day in business when business owners convince themselves that they know best. When they’re so sure that they’re the ones best to solve customers’ problems, that they know better what people want, and when they dumbly think that their customers will use their products how they were designed instead of how they want.

Being that stupid in business is expensive.

There was a really great article in the NYT yesterday about how Twitter Serves Up Ideas From Its Users. It detailed how some of Twitter’s best features – retweets, hashtags and @’ing – were created by watching how people used the site and the little hacks they were creating all by themselves. Over time, Twitter noticed all the ways users had made the site better and began integrating them as new features.

Truth: Your customers are hacking your products the same way.

During BlogWorldExpo, Darren Rowse talked about the two products he sells via his site – the ProBlogger Community and the various books he’s written. Both of these were created because people asked for them. His community wanted a way to interact with another and they wanted a way to make the knowledge Darren shared every day more portable. Darren created products that addressed their needs and frustrations.

Truth: Your customers are also telling you what they want.

The best way to do this marketing “thing” is to sell people things they already want. Because then you’re not really “selling” them. You’re giving it to them, even if there’s a price tag.Even if you don’t think these truths are correct for your business, I promise that they are.

  • Your customers are hacking your product every day to use them more efficiently. Don’t believe me, do a Google search for [what you do + hack].
  • They’re typing clues into your site search box about what they wish your product did/offered.
  • They’re writing blog posts and tweeting about the frustrations and roadblocks you’re unknowingly causing them.
  • They’re using complementary services that also make sense for your business (think the drive-thru).
  • They’re abandoning your site on the same page because you’re not telling them what they need to hear. (Check your analytics.)
  • They’re calling and emailing you asking for X or complaining about Y.

Buying your children elaborate gifts when all they want is the box is relatively harmless as a parent. It also makes for some great photos and family memories. However, doing the same in business is inefficient. And you want to be efficient, because there’s money in efficiency. There’s success there.

Instead of coming up with products no one wants, figure out what they do want. That means making note of how people are hacking your product so that you can integrate them into the next go around. It means finding out where their frustrations lie so that you can take them away. It means seeing how they’re interacting with your site in order to get a deeper understanding of it. It means outright asking what your customers want. It means noticing that they’re using X with your Y and then finding a way to build X right into the dashboard.

kid rocketWhat’s interesting is that customers usually don’t want the elaborate and costly new features we think they do. They don’t want something new or more complicated. They just want you to make what they already have better. They want it to be simpler. Because as nice as bells and whistles are, not having to think or hack something is universally better.

The product you create isn’t “your”, it’s “ours”. And that means that often your customers are the ones with the better grasp on how it’s going to be used. Stop guessing what they want and realize that they’re telling you in a whole bunch of ways. Use your analytics, your site logs and the many behavioral cues they’re giving you to give THEM what they want.

I mean, it’s possible they want that supercharged robot that speaks 5 languages, sings a medley of songs, dances and can spout out random trivia questions while doing back flips. But maybe they just want the box so they can turn it into the rocket ship they’ve always dreamed of. It’s a lot easier to sell someone what they already want than trying to create a need they never had.

Your Comments

  • Joe Hall

    Haven’t been here in awhile…

    I think this is spot on, which is why I am starting to see value in feedback tools. I will be launching a big update to a project i have been working on soon, and almost all the changes are based on user feedback.

  • Lisa Barone

    Joe: Awesome. Feedback tools are great as long as you can trust the information people are giving you — which isn’t always the case. Sometimes people say they want things they don’t and claim to use tools in ways they never would. It you can follow them around and learn by actually watching them, you’re far better off.

    Thanks for the comment and welcome back! :)

  • Michelle Robbins

    Great post Lisa – reading it I kept thinking of a few weeks ago, when I noticed a new Tide product at the store – these tablet things that you’re supposed to add to the wash (in addition to the detergent) to get even cleaner(?) clothes. I looked at it, considered all the R&D that went into the product, the packaging, the marketing, getting it on shelves, etc. and all I could think of was “Why didn’t they just make Tide better.” It also made me think, if Tide alone is not enough, maybe it’s not really the best solution. I think in the rush to be all things to all people, brands don’t consider what they can actually lose, by taking the focus off of core products/services and distracting customers with new shiny objects.

  • Yawn Webmaster!

    How you manage to churn this stuff out so regularly is beyond me. Don’t you have any serious work to do?


  • Lisa Barone

    Michelle: Agreed. I sort of look at Google the same way. I mean, they released SideWiki…what the hell for? No one had a need for SideWiki. No one wants it. No one likes it. Instead of putting resources into things that people never wanted, how about you just improve and simplify what you’ve already got?

    Yawn: Nah, I let Rhea and Rae take care of the real work. I just sit here, snap my gum, and occasionally blog something crazy.

  • netmeg

    SideWiki? As far as I’m concerned, it applies to Google products across the board, with a big whopping extra helping for AdWords.

    Microsoft too. How many people use more than 15% of the features in either Word or Excel?

  • David Zemens

    Keep it simple stupid. Learn from your clients and site visitors, listen to their wants and needs, even listen to their complaints. Keep it simple Crunch the data and sell them what they already want.


  • Todd

    Bells and whistles are WHY people want the box. It sells the product. Making sure it works the way it should is what keeps those customers coming back but that’s a much easier task than attracting new customers. That’s why most marketing focuses on the latter.

    I totally believe in creating brand loyalty, and it shouldn’t be ignored, but the bottom line is: new customers are more important. Listening to your current customers may be a good way to make your product work better, but listening to why people chose another product over yours is more likely to have a larger impact on sales.

    If you’re really good, however, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive…

  • netmeg

    @Todd – I think that depends on what you’re selling and your percentage of return business. I have some clients who sell a product or products once, and their customers usually don’t come back again. I have other clients that sell products more of a consumable nature, so their rate of return business is *very* high, and the dollar amount on the orders increases as well. Sure, new business is important to them, but there’s no business like old business.

  • Lisa Barone

    Netmeg: Touche.

    Todd: New customers are more important than old customers? Ack, remind me not to buy something from you. :) I disagree. I think the products that really take off are the ones that are simple and that solve an established frustration.

    *Knowem makes it easy for people to secure their user names.
    *Google made it easy for people to find information
    *Starbucks made it easy for people to have a go-between for their work/office

    You don’t make money by making things more complicated. You make money by making them easier.

  • Todd

    @nutmeg: Surely I agree with you that it depends on the product/service. And you should NEVER ignore your best customers in ANY case.

    @Lisa I didn’t say current customers aren’t important…what I mean to say is: as far as product development goes, focusing on new customers is where the return comes from. That’s why when Google, knowem, and Starbucks updates/launches a product, the NEW features are right there at the top while improved/fixed features make up a majority of the small print. Also: you don’t have to sacrifice usability to add features…just ask Apple.

  • Nathan Hangen

    You know Lisa, you’re right. I often get hung up on the “brilliant features” that I think clients want, but really they just want the basics…they want a playground. I’m glad I am not a developer, because I’d have a hard time not wanting to implement every idea that came to mind.

    Good reminder that it’s not always about us, but the customer is the one that pays the bills.


  • Clair W.

    Hello! I am currently a student in the William Allen White School Of Journalism at the University of Kansas. I found this entry to be related to the topic of a lecture I attended last week about the importance of ethnographic research. My professor said, “People don’t always say what they do, but they always do what they do.” While companies can conduct focus groups and ask customers what they want in a product, in the end it is important to observe how people to behave in order to find out what they really want in a product. Research is the key!

  • Trevor

    I agree with you on the fact people don’t always need or want the bells and whistles in a new product. A lot of times they DO just need a slight upgrade or improvement to what they have.

    I also think some people have no idea what they need. So many people get stuck in their own daily routine, they forget to see what else is out there. They don’t keep up on new products and services.

    Sometimes we do need to suggest somethings more on the wild side to get them thinking about what they use/would use and how they use it.

  • David Zemens

    People don’t always say what they do, but they always do what they do.

    Absolutely brilliant. So obvious that it is often ignored.

    Thanks for Tweeting the link to this comment, too. Sometimes it’s impossible to keep up on the numerous comments and that was a great way to point people in the direction of the comment itself. Very creative.

  • Innkeeper Seely

    I have to support listening to your current customers to make improvements that keep them in the loop and entice new customers to become repeat customers. More and more often when guests comment about something that they enjoyed about the inn we give credit to previous guests mentioning the “X” would have been nice but not absolutely necessary to improve their stay. Most of the “Xs” are simple and inexpensive (rearranging furniture, magnified makeup mirrors) and some have helped us thrive in a competitive markert (air conditioning, in room TVS/DVDs.) The day we stop listening to guests and making reasonable improvements is the day we had better take down the sign, close the doors, and find something else to do with our lives.

  • SEO Champion

    Hmm i agree with you i like this type of discussion very interesting..

  • john andrews

    Oh boy more SEO Champion spam. That must be the latest SEO technique for rocketing your traffic.

  • Katy

    I also agree with Clair in that in order to do find what the customers want you not only have to do research, but also observe your loyal and potential customers. It reveals the human behavior in its natural context because the person can’t refuse or lie.

    To find out what the customer really wants, pose as a mystery shopper and monitor competition through comparison shopping, examine the gap between advertising/promotions and actual service delivery, and identify differences in customer experience across time/location/ service or product types etc.

    Make mystery shopping fun!

  • Hyperion

    I found the last line of your article very profound:

    “It’s a lot easier to sell someone what they already want than trying to create a need they never had.”

    Not entirely sure why, but I find the need to think about it for 45.5 straight hours.

    And since we’re sharing: my first Christmas, as the first Grandchild, it was (I’m told) a big deal for all the insane aunts and un…well, mostly the women-folk. (Not hating; you know it that goes.) A New Year’s Eve baby, I was almost 1 and while not yet conversant in the ways of Pablo Neruda, I could crawl around impressively and babble in a highly significant way. This being the mid-’70s, it was Fisher Price EVERYTHING, with several of the large set-pieces and their accouterments. According to my father I spent the entire day playing with an orange from my stocking.