Do Customers Want What You’re Selling? Here’s How to Find Out

  • Darshan Mehta
  • August 5, 2017

Sometimes, a consumer doesn’t understand that he needs your product. And sometimes, your company doesn’t know exactly what product to offer.

Sound familiar? It’s time to stop talking past each other. To find the right fit, you need to have a conversation with your customer. Call it premarital customer-product counseling.

Conversation or Calamity?

Fortunately, for this type of counseling, you don’t need a pricey marriage counselor. Dollar Shave Club, for example, began chatting with men about their grooming habits soon after hiring its first employees. Its employees visited places like the Maine Lobster Festival, where grooming was the last topic on anyone’s mind, to get the “average Joe” perspective.

“We figured out how to talk to people, not at them,” Cassie Jasso, an early hire, told Entrepreneur this past March.

Thanks to its customer conversations, Dollar Shave Club upended an incredibly established market. Not only did it successfully steal market share from shave giant Gillette, but it was recently acquired by Unilever for $1 billion.

Sadly, Dollar Shave Club is no normal startup. Somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of new businesses crash and burn in the first five years, and 42 percent of defunct startups say their failure stemmed from insufficient market need for their product.

The bottom line? It’s not enough to come up with a cool design. Before betting big, be sure your product actually serves a market need. Get the feedback you need before pushing your product to market or pay the steep price of assumption.

A Tale of Two Insights

So how, exactly, can your company validate its product with customer chats? You’ll need to pair quantitative and qualitative methodologies.

Chances are that you’ve contributed once or twice to a company’s quantitative initiatives. These insights are typically gathered by online, telephone, or mail surveys or even through street interviews.

Using quantitative methods, you can extrapolate from a statistically significant sample to a broader population. If you were to ask 500 people from Kansas City, Missouri, how many times per month they eat barbecue, for instance, you could know within five percentage points how often the entire city eats barbecue.

The downside of quantitative surveys is that they’re effective only with closed-ended questions. They can answer questions that begin with “which,” “how much,” and “how often,” but they struggle to dig deeper into those that start with “why.”

You can ask open-ended questions on surveys, of course, but be warned: Most people won’t answer them. And even if they do, their answers won’t stem from a conversation. Surveys are unidirectional, meaning that they can’t elicit engagement or response.

To truly get insights into your customer’s head, you need to use qualitative methods. These include in-depth interviews and focus groups — either online, in person, or by phone. During a focus group, you can explore the customer journey and understand pain points. If you wanted to know why those same 500 Kansas City residents eat barbecue as much as they do, you’d turn to qualitative options.

Increasingly, both methods can be done inexpensively. Thanks to the internet, surveys can be sent to thousands of people instantaneously, and online focus groups bring all the benefits of in-person sessions — and, frankly, a few more — for a small percentage of the cost.

What makes both methods so valuable for product validation? They feed off of each other. The insights gleaned from an online focus group can be used to create more informed surveys. In turn, those survey answers can help you construct even more valuable focus groups.

In fact, all sorts of organizations combine insight tools in this way. My company recently helped soccer team D.C. United gather insights for a fresh logo and branding strategy. By conducting online focus groups with both newer fans and long-time supporters, it discovered deeper context for its quantitative insights. Sure enough, both the team and its fans — new and old — loved the subtle, contemporary tweaks it made to the team logo.

When it comes to your customers, neither qualitative nor quantitative insights are enough alone. Only by gathering and leveraging both can you lay the foundation for product-market matrimony.


Darshan Mehta is the founder and CEO of iResearch, an online insights platform that enables companies to quickly, easily, and affordably extract insights from consumers or employees worldwide. Drawing upon more than 20 years of marketing strategy and research design experience, Mehta is authoring a book, “Getting to Aha! Today’s Insights Are Tomorrow’s Facts,” to help business leaders understand and leverage changing consumer preferences. 

In addition to his role at iResearch, Mehta is an adjunct professor at universities in Thailand, Sweden, France, and the U.S. Through the course of his work, Mehta has traveled to more than 80 countries and been recognized in publications such as ForbesInc., the Journal of Advertising Research, and Quirk’s.


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