5 Sneaky Ways to Find Out What Customers Really Want… Without Asking Them

5 Sneaky Ways to Find Out What Customers Really Want… Without Asking Them

Joshua Black has long stood out in our comment section here at Men with Pens – I admire his firm tone, his thought-provoking suggestions and his dead-on comments that show plenty of marketing brains. (His avatar also shows off a nice pair of shades, but that’s a different story.) Enjoy Joshua’s post – and put his ideas to good use!

“If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said -a faster horse.” – Henry Ford

You can’t swing a dead cat these past few years without hearing that the customer is king and that you’ve got to find your niche market before you create something to sell.  It seems like you’re supposed to find a starving crowd and then feed them what they’re looking for on a silver platter so that they gobble up your content like a kid in a candy store.

The problem with all of this is that you CANNOT directly ask your customers what they want, because (as Ford so eloquently put it) they’ve no idea what they want until they actually see it. After all, if he’d found them a faster horse, then maybe we’d never have pickups and trucks on the roads today.

Therein lies the rub… How do you find out what your customers want so that you can sell it to them, make a big pile of money, and then go live in Fiji under a palm tree the rest of your life?

This is the curse of the copywriter, the entrepreneur, the innovator, and the candlestick maker. You’re the one that everyone counts on to be innovative, to come up with the NEXT BEST THING since hot water… and you need to find that THING to sell.

So you’re going to have to do a little digging. You’re going to have to do something that’s hard. You’re going to have to put in a lot of research, strap on your innovator helmet, pull up your dare-to-be-different pants, and get to work.

Here are 5 ways to crawl inside your customers’ brains and extract a vial of what they really want without having to come right out and ask ‘em:

1. This or that: A very successful online retailer of women’s clothing thought of a way to sell only their customers’ favorites without making them say their faves out loud. The retailer continually showed two distinctly different pieces of clothing side by side and had their audience vote for the best.

The unanimous winner went in the catalog and made thousands for the company. If the retailer couldn’t determine a sure favorite of their customers, they did split testing.

You can do this with just about any niche. Make your audiences pick between two (and only two) products or services, and then give them an opportunity to choose.

2. Go to Wal-Mart: This expression means you should get out there and eavesdrop on your customers in their natural environment. Hang around the lions while they’re kicking back in their den complaining about their biggest problems to other lions (like who left their dirty undies lying around the cave).

Customers will never really tell you their problems if you ask directly. They often don’t exactly know what their problems are.

Listen to what customers say. Are they complaining? About what? Are they sighing over something they wish they had? What is it? What problems keep them from getting the results they want?

Don’t say a word. Take copious amounts of notes and quietly leave the scene like an entrepreneurial ninja. I like to hang out at coffee shops and use my Blackberry for this kind of covert operation, because it just looks like I’m texting someone and being oblivious to people at other tables.

3. Walk the dog: We’re at our peak of creativity when we allow our subconscious mind to do the heavy lifting and our conscious mind trots off to la-la land. Get outside and just go for a walk, preferably with your dog.

Allow your mind to wander. Imagine you were your customer. Look at what’s around you, take in the sights and the smells (only if they’re worth smelling), and try to be that person.

Don’t try to think about finding a solution to the problem you believe your customer has. Drop that and just pretend you’re the customer with the complaints – then let your subconscious do all the work. It’ll often offer up a solution when it’s damn good and ready.

4. Look somewhere else: Check out other industries. This is one of the key reasons that Dan Kennedy became so successful – he borrowed from other places.

Go look for top dogs in a completely unrelated industry. How did they solve their customers’ problems? What unique action did they take? What product or service did they create that you can borrow to make your own and become the rock star of your niche?

Let’s say that you’re a copywriter for the golf niche. To find your ultra-fab solution, maybe the roofing industry offers a good idea – or the tow-truck industry, or even the world of knitting (just don’t tell the golfers how you came up with your new idea).

5. The 10% solution: Go where people are already buying. There’s almost always an innovative idea that can be traced back to what’s already selling like hotcakes.

Here’s what you do: Find a product, service, or solution that’s already working and selling very well. Next, improve on that idea by just 10%. Show the same niche of people that your idea is soooooooo much better than the current one and – BINGO! You win.

Of course, be careful you’re not messing with a cult-status product (think iPod or Macs), because then you’ll be looked upon as a cheap imitator instead of an innovator.

There you have it – 5 ways to find out what your customer really wants, and tools you can take out whenever the mystery needs to be solved.

How do you dive into the thoughts of your customers? What should be number 6 on this list?

Joshua Black is a small business consultant, and copywriter that runs a teeny, little FREE newsletter called the Underdog Millionaire Tip Sheet, built for the struggling small business owner trying to claw a way out of the rat race without breaking the bank. And when he’s not doing that, he’s aimlessly walking his dog around Michigan and eavesdropping his way to new product ideas.

When it comes to solving problems, inspiring creative ideas and coming up with new products or services for your customers, there's nothing better than A Whack on the Side of the Head, by Roger von Oech.

We loved this book – because it really gets you thinking outside the box!

Post by Agent X

Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

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  1. If you’re an online marketer, go to Twitter for #2. Search for keywords and watch conversations unfold. Watch what gets praised and what gets destroyed. Then you can capitalize on #5.

    This has some crossover with #4, but seek out trends and then combine two of them to create a new category.

    Lastly, become a customer yourself. Use the products, try to accomplish the same tasks and use that as a springboard for ideas.

  2. I have this fab picture of Joshua the undercover spy using his piece of fruit to eavesdrop on awesome ideas all the while wearing bright yellow superhero pants! Great stuff Joshua.

    The thing that I’m hearing here is the importance of listening. Whether it be via Twitter like Jason mentioned in the comment above me or when out and about around your home environment, listening is key.

    But I also love the idea of solving a problem that you have yourself. I think it was the 37 Signals team who did this to the tune of millions. (I’m sure they weren’t first but they make a big song and dance about it so I remember them!) They found the stuff that narked them and then found (and sold) the solution.

  3. I agree with Jason. Social media is a good way to find out what people are talking about, their likes and dislikes and do some informal market research.

    • As much as I would love to agree with that, It would be cumbersome task to follow something like that. With social networks being filled with spammers, there only junk flowing out most of the time.

  4. i started a little blog to help other mums (like me) who want to start their own little business from home. i love this post because so many mums are trying to figure out how to turn their little(often crafty)idea into one that will actually work as a business. it is not enough to make something you think is cool, you need to make something other people with think is cool. i will be sharing this post, as i am sure it will help to inspire them. thanks =)

    • Karen,

      Thanks for the sincere comment. It’s too true, too often. Entrepreneurs get stuck in a little bubble around their idea, like the sun circling the earth or something… however, it’s just now how it all works. You’re customers are the ones that get to vote.

      Thanks for reading.

      -Joshua Black

  5. My 6th point would be hanging out in the kind of coffee shops your customers are likely to frequent, and people watch. Although I do most of my business via internet, I spend one day a week in the City and spend a good couple of hours on most occasions doing just that. Believe me, Starbucks has replaced water coolers as a place where those business folks who have a bit of pzazz about them do their gossiping. I can listen in to some of the nuances of conversation that I might not otherwise pick up.

    It’s fascinating. Hell, sometimes I even butt in!

    • Christine,

      You’re dead-on. Coffee shops are actually small business and customer incubators. Many a great idea have been hatched over joe… I got the entire idea for 2 of my products just by evesdropping at a coffee shop.

      -Joshua Black

      • Bingo! I got the idea to move from corporate coaching, to offering my services to individuals, after listening in on what business sorts really think about most training their companies provide. They think it’s bullshit and it probably is. I wanted to do something real and that spoke to the heart of their real issues, using their language and not all the crappy jargon you get in both the corporate and coaching worlds. Hence I ventured into new and exciting territory and have never looked back!

  6. Annie Stith says:

    Hey, Joshua!

    I know it’s old-fashioned, but it seems every niche has a published author — so, read.

    Buy a competitor’s book and read, letting the words float thru your brain. Keep reading until a word or a phrase or an idea falls with a *thud* because you realize there’s a product that hasn’t yet been sold that your customers will need (as soon as you tell them they need it).


  7. Woot! Go Joshua! Love reading your comments, a post by you is even better! (Just LOOK at those exclamation marks James!!!)

    Unfortunately I have a bit of an issue with #3. I don’t have a dog…. we tried walking the cat but the harness broke (true story). What’s left?

    I love #5 – what others are doing but better. Isn’t there a saying about inventing a better mousetrap and people will flock to buy it? Off to see what I can find to improve upon.

    Thanks Josh!

    • Wow Melinda,

      Tip of the hat to you as well.

      mmmmm… yes, I have tried walking my cat as well to no avail. However, as long as you have at least one leg to stand on, there is nothing wrong with going out for a walk without a furry friend. As a bonus, there is no mess to clean up while you are busy brainstorming. I have found that the smell of number 2 can really screw up your brainstorming mojo.

      -Joshua Black

  8. All great ideas. Like the better than “hot water” analogy.

    I spent years trying to find my “niche.” I tried every kind of keyword tool, did copious research, took courses and still had no luck. My niche is too small and didn’t exist–yet!

    So, fortunately James said to just “create your own niche.” I’m not anywhere near Henry Ford’s scale of redefining what the customer wants, but at least I’ve started. Last week I got an email from England saying my post made them cry and yesterday someone told me they were going to link my post. My first link

    So what the heck, even though I get 3x more spam than comments, it’s progress. Don’t you wonder what Henry Ford’s initial website would have looked like? Humm, he probably would have been a geek and technology wizard. There would probably be a “blog post template” with an assembly line of people who added touches and cranked out a zillion posts a week. (Humm, he could give Seth Godin some competition–instead of Ford and Chrysler it would have been Ford and Godin driving lizard-brain workers.)

    If I had to add a 6th topic to Joshua’s list it would be to trust your instincts. Some of us don’t have to hide out in coffee shops (or wait until we can afford a blackberry for our undercover work:) we have life experiences that can give us direction.

    Well Joshua, you got me thinking…now I need more coffee, or meds. Gee, is it Friday?

    • Mary,

      Wow, you got and email from England and made the only country cry? Cool. Really though, that’s great that you are carving out your own niche. Sometimes you just have to go at it that way with pure willpower and determination.

      Actually Henry Ford was almost a complete idiot. His pure genius was that he knew other people were smarted than him and had the guts to have experts do the thing they do best.

      So his website would either be two stick figures that just stood their, or it would be something that you just stare at and a sandwitch comes out of the screen when it figure out you’re hungry.

      Write articles… it will bring you fans. Slow, but it works.

      -Joshua Black

  9. They seem so obvious, but Joshua, these are great ideas. I especially like the 007 approach in the coffee shop. Sneaky… very sneaky. 😀

  10. It’s true that in some markets customers can’t articulate, or won’t admit, what they want. But that’s not true for all markets. If I were to ask you what you would like to see in a new shampoo or a new laptop, you would probably easily come up with 2 or 3 things. But truly revolutionary products–like the car–are different. People can’t respond to something that they have no context to understand. But in most markets you can do at least one of these things:

    1. Identify current sources of pain. Ask: What problems do you have? What tasks take more time than you’d like?
    2. Look at current satisfaction with existing products/solutions. What do they like best? Like least? The answers may surprise you.
    3. Avoid mistakes.You might think your great new idea is…well, great. But present it to a group of customers and you just might find out that something important needs to be added, cut or just tweaked. Better to find out sooner than later.
    4. Prototype. Especially for online products (eBooks, new blogs, other information products) it’s pretty easy to create a prototype, preview or even a teaser splash page. Adding in a sign up for those who want to be notified when the product is released gives you a good sense of potential interest. Perfect? No. But it will give you some good directional insight.

    • Kathryn,

      Even with the shampoo example, your cutomer may TELL you that they want to get rid of split ends and have more body, but they probably really want their shampoo to make them more sexy, which is something that they will NEVER tell you. It’s similar to something called the Vodka Test, which you can do a search for.

      It’s the things they will NEVER tell you are the real reasons people buy and those are the things we must go after in our copy.

      -Joshua Black

      • Canek Riestra says:

        I guess it is important to state there is a great, significant difference between creative thinking and research.

        Taking the shampoo example, people might tell some useless or “nice to see” answer when you ask; but the problem is not “to ask”, it is “how to do it”. In true research, Q & A dynamics rarely develop in taking for granted every single thing people say; but it is the reading of the sum of inconsistences, and a good thinking, searching and insights understanding job what makes the trick. And this could be developed with creative thinking mixed with common sense and a healthy, objective view of the world we live on.

        Any creative, copy or art director will say they don’t do research. The truth is they do it all the time, they just don’t like surveys as they were taunght in college. They (as you suggest) go ahead and take a pic at the world, and come up with ideas of how to make things a little bit – or a lot – better. But to suggest that you can come up with the next stuff by just following your instincts… well, you also need to be brilliant. There lies the difference.

        There’s nothing wrong about asking, neither watching. But you better do it the right way, and never pretend than just because you thought it would be great, everyone else will think so.

  11. Hey Joshua,

    Thank you for these five great sneaky ideas. When you ask clients what they need, you’ll get something vague and generic because what they really want has little to do with the actual product or service. What they really need can be found way down through the conformist rubble … #4 is my favorite. Cross-idea pollination works really well. We’re so used to vertical thinking that this type of lateral thinking seems alien.

    Thanks! Giulietta

  12. Do get yourself a dog – last time I got lost in a personal brainstorming session in the car I missed my exit and was an hour late for lunch with my in-laws!

  13. Josh,

    I’m curious what you think about the 37 Signals model of product building: scratch your own itch, build something that you would pay for yourself.

    I see pros and cons with this model, but would like to hear your thoughts.

    • Cameron,

      Big fan of 37 Signals and even a bigger fan of bootstrapping and creating a product that first solves your own problem.

      If you are a customer in the niche that you choose to dabble, that can be a blessing and a curse. It’s great because you understand the customer’s pain, but it can hurt your business if you think that you know everything about the niche and no one knows more.

      It’s the harder road to take for sure, but in the end it can be more profitable.

      I’m all about taking the easier road and making people happy by solving problems that they’ve already voiced.

      I guess it all depends on how much you can push yourself against adversity.

      -Joshua Black

  14. I think going with Social Media for #2 can be really helpful – but for businesses that are also trying to grab their local market (like moi), can’t forget local events either.

    I recently joined the local Chamber of Commerce – going to go to a few of their events, as I know that’s where the local business-people are, and technically, I’m the only copywriter in town. Hopefully a winning combination!

    Great article, Joshua! 🙂

    • Paige,

      I’m with you… not the biggest fan of listening to the buzz on social media, because quite frankly, many people are liars about what they really want.

      On-line it’s so easy to be passive-agressive and tweet and honk about things that make you mad, but if your just hanging out, having a solid conversation with a friend about the things that really bug you… well, that’s where the magic happens.

      What a lot of people need to remember is that just because you ma have on on-line business model, does not mean that there is not flesh and bone at the other end. These are people that also walk around occasionally and go outside between bouts of World of Warcraft.

      yikes… that is edging really close to a rant, so I’ll stop right about here.

      -Joshua Black

  15. Thank you Joshua! Didn’t know about the hidden gems in the coffee shops. I now need to take a break from cheapness (brewing my own coffee) and start hanging out over there to dig out the golden egg.
    The other cool place I found was to hang out in the city’s busiest streets. Vendors like to pass out samples, coupons, or even to run cooking shows in the middle of the street to get people’s feedback. I like to spend 1 day a week just to observe which vendors are doing what and how many people respond and their reaction. So far it’s pretty good for me.

  16. My #6 would be to put yourself in the consumer’s shoes, Carnegie style. Ask yourself (within this industry) “What are my needs?” “What are my wants?” “What other products would I want?” etc.

    It’s market research without doing market research.

    A note on #5: Remember that if you build a better product it should generally be priced higher too, and you have to ask yourself if the market (a) needs it to be better, (b) can differentiate the price-quality difference, or (c) can bear that elevated price.

  17. G’Day James.
    Thanks for the opportunity to read Joshua’s insightful comments. Good Stuff.
    After a long time in business I’m convinced that Just asking customers, even with the best will in the world on both sides, isn’t very helpful for a whole lot of reasons.
    it wasn’t only Henry Ford either. I don’t believe that Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Wrigleys, Wal-Mart or Toys’R’Us emerged after extensive research and focus group findings. The Wright Brothers just wanted to fly. And wasn’t it the founder of IBM who said that he couldn’t imagine why the world would ever want more than ten computers

    I also saw some research a couple of years ago that suggested that about 70% of all surveys of “popular opinion” came up with an answer that reflected the view of the person or organization commissioning the survey. I’ve experienced this myself. Self Fulfilling Prophecy is a reality.

    Finally, after over 30 years in business may I report that I’ve noticed that what customers really value about your product or service is frequently not what you would’ve expected they’d value. Perhaps that’s why ideas like cars that fly and 3D movies have been around for seventy or more years but have never really taken off—-Please excuse bad pun.

    As Joshua suggests, we need to be a lot smarter than that. I suspect that it’s the guy or gal who asks “What if?” who’s most likely to create something that eventually becomes a “household name.”

    Make sure you have fun.


  18. I have to say that it’s uncanny how many people (and predominately offline businesses) don’t use the power of split testing as you’ve been talking about in #1. The point is, just because you think you have a great product and way to market it, you never know what the customer really wants and works the best until you split test things.
    In the end the customers vote with their wallets don’t they, not their opinions. 😉

    Nice wrap up Joshua.

  19. I love the idea about improving what’s existing out there by 10% – without looking like a cheap copycat. It makes perfect sense though I still want to be the first one to have thought of something totally innovative. I guess, clients these days would love to tell you things but they don’t want to… which makes it hard for you to listen to what they really want. On the other hand, we have crowdsourcing.

  20. Joshua,

    Great stuff! Many times if I think of it as a customer, I usually do not know I wanted something until I saw it on a commercial, or billboard or right at walking in product isles. Having a physical product in front of you, sure creates a need to have one.

    I have to try out other methods soon! Undercover that too 🙂

  21. Awesome post Joshua!

    Loveyour underdog blog so it was awesome to come over and find you here!
    Well deserved too I might add – I love the insight you bring in relation to the offline side of the online marketing world 🙂

    This post is no exception and I loved the referenced you brought to the table.

    Thanks for sharing man

  22. Love these points. I will only add a little more to the Walmart example.

    Now with Social Media, we can listen to our customers online, and listen to many of them.

    I actually wrote an article about this:

    How to use Twitter to find out what your customers want.


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