I recently read the following quote from Apple CEO Steve Jobs:
"You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new."
Job's statement reminds me of a similar statement made by Henry Ford many decades before, which was:
"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
Both of these statements imply that there's no value in market research. This couldn't be further from the truth.
However, I think there is a valid point made by each quote when applied to game changing technologies. The automobile was a game changer. As a result, before automobiles were around, the average individual couldn't really fathom what an automobile would be like, let alone state in a survey that they wanted one.
Likewise, before digital audio/MP3 players were invented, it would have been hard for the average consumer to voice their need for such a product.
But importantly, after each of these product categories were launched, market research became critical. Market research determined what new features to add. For cars, it was market research that told manufacturers to increase fuel efficiency, to add better stereo systems, and to increase cargo capacity among others.
For digital audio/MP3 players, it was market research that told manufacturers to increase screen sizes, increase the battery life, and add storage capacity among others.
And, even before these game changing technologies were invented, the right questions WOULD have yielded the right market intelligence.
For horse owners, if you asked, "would you be interested in a faster way to get from your house to your best friend's house a town over?" the answer probably would have been "yes."
For Sony Walkman owners, if you asked, "would you be interested in a smaller player that holds 100 times more songs and lets you access each song more easily?" the answer also probably would have been "yes."
The key is that market research IS critical and highly useful, particularly if you ask the right questions.
Below is my 5-step process for conducting market research to understand the wants and needs of your customers, so you can develop the right new products and services:
Step 1: Choose your audience
You need to make sure you survey the right audience. For example, if you are trying to understand the needs of seniors, you obviously don't survey teenagers. Generally you will survey current customers and prospective customers, and particularly for prospective customers, you need to choose your criteria precisely.
Step 2: Create your survey questions
There are two core types of questions I like to ask. The first type are demographic and psychographic questions. These are questions such as how old you are, what zip code you live in, and what TV shows you watch.
The reason for these questions is that they allow you to filter and/or segment your results. For example, you may find that consumers in one zip code have different needs than consumers in a different zip code.
The second type of questions I ask are needs and wants questions. These are questions designed to identify what customers like about current solutions, what they don't like, and what an ideal solution might look like.
In soliciting this feedback, I use ratings scales, multiple choice questions and open-ended questions (which are questions in which there are no "set" responses and the user has to type in their answer).
Step 3: Do a reality check on your survey questions
Most surveys have two problems that go hand in hand: they ask questions that are un-actionable and they are too long.
With regards to un-actionable questions, read each question to yourself aloud and then imagine how the responses might come back. And then ask yourself if having that response would lead to an action you can take.
Then remove the un-actionable questions, and make sure your survey can be completed in 5 to 10 minutes tops.
Step 4: Decide how to administer your survey
In the "old" days, you could mail surveys, conduct them face-to-face, or conduct them via telephone. Today, conducting surveys online using tools like SurveyMonkey.com are considerably easier, faster, and cheaper. So, nearly always, I recommend administering your survey online (unless of course your target customers are not computer savvy or computer literate).
Step 5: Analyze your results
Analyzing your results is the fun part. Fortunately online tools such as SurveyMonkey.com make analysis quick and easy as they tabulate the results for you.
Importantly, once you review your results, you should start to take action. Because there is validity to Steve Jobs' quote, in that customer needs and wants do change. And if you wait to long to satisfy their current needs, by the time you do, their needs might have changed.
I often quote Jay Abraham's line, "Your customers are geniuses; they know exactly what they want." Because it's true. But as a marketer and entrepreneur, you need to get this genius out of them. You need to ask them the right questions at the right time in order to pull the information you need to better satisfy them and gain competitive advantage.