Myths #1: My customers tell me what they want.

Somewhere in his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson quoted Jobs as having said:

“Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

The basic question here is “Do customers really know what they want?” This all starts early on when a child wants so many things because an object might be shiny or squeaks or moves in a funny way. After his favorite word “no”, a child most often says, “I want”. We spend the rest of our lives wanting things before we understand what we truly want.

It is the market that drives the needs of customers. As customers, we all have our preferences, our likes and dislikes. Commercialism is constantly selling us their commodities. The market plays on the innate “hungers” of the customers, who listen to endorsements by “smart people” like professionals such as doctors or celebrities or large numbers of other users of the product. Who hasn’t been pressured by the “used car salesman” pitch?

Of course, we often ask friends about merchandise due to envy or uncertainty about our plans or decisions to make a purchase of something we think we need or just because others have it or “just because”. Others have it, so we just need it, too.

If we are honest when we want to make a purchase, we most often approach the expert’s advice for what we need. With something as simple as going to a restaurant, we might ask the waiter about what he/she prefers on the menu. Who of us hasn’t asked the attendant at the paint store about what kind of paint we need for a “do-it-yourself” job. On the infrequent occasion of buying a car, we ask “a million” questions about makes and models. We do turn to the experts for advice about what we need.

If it is true that most customers don’t know what they truly need, why is it that so many proprietors don’t investigate what the customers not only say they want but what they really understand about what they need?

Therefore, a genuine proprietor will pause before a sale to engage the virtue of empathy in conversation with the customer about a proposed purchase. Empathy is the human capacity or virtue to somehow put oneself in the shoes or skin of another to grasp the inner thoughts and feelings of that person’s desires and wants. Empathy is different from sympathy, which is joining into another’s emotional experience. Empathy is the cognitive reaching out to understand another’s situation, which also has an emotional underpinning that is an added facet to understanding.

Empathy provides the proprietor or salesperson an insight into what kind and what quality of product will best serve the customer. This gives the proprietor the advantage of not only selling a reliable product but also establishing a repeat customer who will have the trust and confidence of an honest relationship with an authentic dealer. This kind of trust is the best “commercial” a business can have for growth and innovation.