How to Determine What Your Customer Really Needs

Emily Triplett Lentz | March 8, 2016

Your customer—let’s call her Francine—adores your product, but she wishes it had one extra feature—we’ll call it Feature X—that would make her life easier and save her boatloads of time.

You don’t have Feature X. You’re not planning on building Feature X. Come to think of it, Francine is the only person who’s ever asked for Feature X. “What a weird idea, Francine,” you say to yourself. “Why would you want to do something like that?”

While you could tell Francine no and move on to the next conversation, more often than not you can help solve Francine’s problem in a way that works just as well (if not better) than what she originally had in mind. It just takes a little effort to ask the right questions, figure out what her need really is, and convince her to implement the solution you suggest.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

Invest more time than usual

Even when you think you can anticipate the customer’s core need because you’ve seen it before, think twice about shutting down the conversation with a single reply. You want Francine to indulge you with a description of how she’s using your product, which you’re not going to get if you cut her off.

“A huge lesson I am learning when interacting with customers every day is to be careful telling someone they can't do something,” writes Chris Gallo, who is on the support team at CRM software company Highrise. When customers used to ask how to pin a note to the top of a contact’s page, he’d tell them it wasn’t possible—until one day, a customer shared a clever hack: you could change the date a note is entered so it would stay on top of the page.

After getting over how silly that seemed, Gallo became curious. “Why are you trying to pin notes?” he asked. Turns out, the note included critical info the customer didn’t want getting buried—they’d been burned by that before. Highrise support started suggesting the workaround to other customers until it became a popular enough request that they made it possible to pin notes without the hack.

Gallo simply took an extra minute to ask one more question about what someone was ultimately trying to do.

“Get into a conversation,” Gallo says. “This is where the magic happens. Where you learn why people are using your product and what they're trying to do.”

Channel your inner librarian

Librarians call this “what-are-you-really-looking-for?” exchange a reference interview—a conversation that uncovers the library user’s core need. To determine what that is, librarians use techniques such as asking open-ended questions to encourage further dialogue, mirroring the user’s vocabulary, and spotting sub-textual clues. (Sneaky librarians.)

Ann Goliak, who moved into quality assurance from a support role at Basecamp, began her career as a librarian in a physics and astronomy library. She recalls speaking with a group of undergrads who showed up looking for a basic book on astronomy. They weren’t, however, really interested in the physical and chemical properties of the cosmos. “It took a lot of back and forth but in the end, what they really wanted was a star chart, because they wanted to go stargazing and make out.”

Reference interview skills translate beautifully to customer support—especially when Francine has already decided she needs a quarter-inch hole, and she’s asking if you carry the right drill bit.

Try a different angle

Sometimes we need to get creative about offering solutions. Take Fracture, for example. It’s an online service that custom prints photos directly onto glass. Due to the special material, Fractures only come in 4:3 rectangles or 1:1 squares.

It used to be that when potential customers asked for panoramic prints, the answer was no—panoramic photos are longer than the formatted aspect ratios Fracture is limited to. Suggesting customers crop their photos didn’t work either: “Customers don't want to see part of their photo up on their wall,” says Brittany Ferguson, Fracture’s director of customer happiness. “They want to take in the entire scene, and to relive that special memory.”

Fracture didn’t want to lose that business, so their support team began initiating conversations with the people who approached them about panoramic prints. They’d ask to see the particular photo, then suggest a new idea: rather than crop it, how about splitting it across multiple 1:1 Fractures? Using the customer’s own photos, they’d send back examples to help them visualize the idea.

Customers loved the effect, and many of them now choose to order their panoramic photos broken up into these triptychs. Fracture set up a Help Scout Beacon on its photo-editing page, so now any customer who searches for “panorama” is directed to the Doc that explains the workaround in Fracture’s knowledge base.

Walk through a real-world scenario

Help Scout customers will sometimes frame their problems hypothetically, like this:

“If I have a conversation that came from Joe Schmo but the ticket really belongs to Jane Doe, how do I change the conversation so that it belongs to Jane Doe’s profile?”

Clearly worded, but we can tell that’s not the whole story (and we doubt those are your customers’ actual names). The last time a customer wrote in with a question phrased this way, Help Scout support lead Justin Seymour asked for specifics,

“You wouldn't want to update the profile, since that'll go and change older tickets that are associated with that particular customer. Can you help me understand the use case a bit more? Or can you point me to the conversation in question? I'd be happy to take a closer look.”

The customer wrote back, linking to an example conversation and explaining that she uses Help Scout’s Voicemail app to forward voice messages directly into Help Scout.

Well, if that’s the case, then no problem! Conversations created from voice messages are a different animal—you can change the customer profile associated with those. After getting a more realistic view of the issue, Seymour was able to offer a real-world solution to the customer’s real-world use case.

The extra effort is worth it

Aside from helping you better understand your customers’ use cases, asking questions and receiving input from your customers builds relationships and generates trust. That trust will allow you to guide them toward better solutions they haven’t considered, even when it means going through the pain of making a shift in the way they work. If these conversations ultimately lead to a shift in how your product works, then all the better.


About the author: Emily Triplett Lentz is on the marketing team at Help Scout, where she writes about support, company culture, and other fun stuff..