Commercial Concepts

Primary objective

By Chip Burnham

In eight weeks, you can research and prioritize customer needs and then respond with the most valuable products and services

FFJ 0718 commercial lead2July/August 2019 - Understanding customer needs is key to business success, but we don’t always know how to obtain truly objective feedback. Metalworking enterprises may rely on anecdotal comments from customer-facing staff rather than conduct objective research to guide their business.

Through the years, I’ve conducted many Voice of the Customer (VOC) research projects—some comprehensive, and some quick studies. Those without a budget or resources to conduct large studies may not perform them at all. But there is a way to collect a comprehensive list of customer needs in a scientific and objective way, as taught to me many years ago by Applied Marketing Science, Boston. This project should take six to eight weeks.

The steps to complete this project are to conduct 20 interviews with customers, tape the interviews, pull out needs from transcripts, have customers sort those needs, and then send out an email blast to all customers asking them to rate those needs. In the end, you will create two tables that should help you drive your business toward your market: Primary Needs Table and Market Opportunity Map.

Selecting your audience is vitally important for this project. Focus on customers and end markets that bring you the greatest profit. Consider revenue, of course, but also consider internal resource drain from all departments. Sometimes the customer that brings in the most revenue provides a thin margin. Once you select your end market, make a list of all customers who reside in that market and start scheduling interviews.

Interview plan

Create eight to 10 questions you will use to uncover needs. Don’t use leading or close-ended questions, such as: Do you require 90 percent uptime? Use open-ended questions: What on-site service level do you need? Describe what you expect out of this equipment? What issues have you had with this product?

Create a cross-functional matrix of 20 people you will interview. Studies show you can gather over 90 percent of the needs interviewing just 20 people when you follow this approach. On one axis, place the two to four job titles for those who buy or use your product. On the other axis, place another important criterion, such as geography or company size (see Figure 1 below).

FFJ 0719 commercial image1

Figure 1: This interview plan spans a three-state territory and three types of people who buy or use the product offerings.

Working with people inside your company who are knowledgeable about your offerings, market and customers, draft those open-ended questions, which should be designed to get your interview subjects to talk about the product, how they use it, what they need from it and how it helps their business.

These questions might include: What did you do before you had this product? What problems did you have with the old approach? How has the latest product improved your situation? Explain how easy or difficult it is to service the product? Where does the product fall short?

The goal of the interview is to obtain qualitative information. You’re not trying to find out if one particular individual prefers dark green; you’re trying to find out if color is potentially a primary need at all.

When asking customers to schedule a 30-minute interview with you, explain that the purpose is to improve your products and service and that it will be taped only so notes won’t have to be taken. Tell them their comments will be an anonymous part of a broader study. It is best to have two people from your company to conduct the face-to-face or phone interviews. One employee is the primary interviewer, and the other is there to ensure that all conversation threads that could expose a need are exhausted. Taped interviews are later transcribed. I use the phone application TapeACall and the associated transcription service

During interviews, dig deep to uncover all possible needs. For example, if the customer says, “I need the product to run fast,” then the interviewer should follow up asking why it needs to run fast. Take the questions out of order if you wish, and omit questions if a current conversation thread seems to be fruitful.

Determine needs

When studying the transcripts, highlight each phrase that contains a customer need and copy highlighted text into an Excel spreadsheet verbatim. Our example interview plan is for a company that customizes trucks for use by landscapers. The fictitious company would look for phrases such as, “We must have enough fuel to get us at least up to lunch,” “I need to unload equipment fast,” “Avoiding injuries during unloading is key,” or “Maneuvering into a good parking spot is often difficult and wastes time.”

Remove duplicate solutions (“Put a carabiner on the end”), target values (“1 need 10 of these”), and opinions (“Blue is cool”). Some of this information might later be helpful for your product development and service departments, but they are not primary needs. Duplicates are removed because repetition doesn’t necessarily correlate to importance; it might simply be obvious.

Review the phrases on your spreadsheet and reword as needed for clarity. Your list, which may have started with 150 to 300 needs, will be pared down to 30 to 60 unique qualitative needs. Now it is time to create the Primary Needs Table.

Prioritize needs

Print out each of the 30 to 60 needs on a slip of paper easily handled. Bring in two or three customers and have them sort the needs into groups and name each group. Some groups might have 20 needs, and others might have two. Encourage them to end up with 10 to 20 primary needs. Then have them group these primary needs into three to seven families and name each family (see Figure 2).

FFJ 0719 commercial image2

Figure 2. Lists should be prioritized. Which need is most important, and which need do you already meet? Find out by sending out an email blast to contacts in your target market.

Ask customers to complete an online questionnaire that asks two questions of each need. “On a rating of 1 to 10 with 10 being highest, how well does your current product perform related to this need?” And, “How important is this need to you?”

When you receive the responses, normalize the data and plot it onto a grid. You can see detailed explanation of this plotting on our website: The result is a Market Opportunity Map.

With the Primary Needs Table and Market Opportunity Map in hand, you now have a complete list of primary needs in your customers’ own words, prioritized by the customers. Print these out and hand them to your colleagues. Each department can benefit from listening to the voice of the customer. FFJ

Chip Burnham is author of “MarketMD Your Manufacturing Business” and is cofounder of Fairmont Concepts, which helps manufacturers maximize the performance of their commercial engine. Fairmont Concepts, Maple Valley, Washington, 833/667-7889,

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