What to do when your customers aren’t telling the truth

Spoiler: They’re not doing it on purpose, you’re just not asking the right questions.

“Build it and they will come!” 

In engineering school, I was taught that all I needed to do was build a great product. I didn’t need to factor anything else in; customers would just flock to me. 

Of course, it was a lie. 

But this isn’t the only lie I was told when building products.

The other was this: “Just speak to customers! They’ll give you the information you need to sell more products.”

So, I’d ask them what they want. I’d build it and then guess what they’d say? “Nope, that’s not it – go back”.

I realized pretty quickly that every time I talked to a customer, they would lie to me. And they’d lie often. 

But they don’t lie with malice; they just forget part of the story. 

They tell me what I want to hear.

I needed another way to understand how to create value for customers. I needed a way to understand what causes people to say, “today’s the day I need to make a change”. 

I’ve had many mentors in my life. Many of these I talk about in my book, Learning to Build, and how they taught me the five bedrock skills all entrepreneurs need to build products.

It was from learning from these, I was able to develop a process that allowed me to ask questions differently. One that would help me to get to the source of all innovation; in other words, the struggling moment. 

They helped me to look at customers and the progress through a different lens. 

If you’re struggling to understand or apply what your customers are telling you, perhaps it’s time for a reset. Try these insights to give you a different perspective.

What does the customer want without telling me what they want?

I was an intern in Japan with Dr. Deming where he taught me the importance of finding technology agnostic requirements from the customer. 

In plain language: what does the customer want without telling me what they want?

If you don’t understand what’s going on in your customers’ lives – the context they’re in and the desired outcome they need… how do you determine value? 

Questions create spaces in the brain for solutions to fall into.

Clay Christensen once asked me: what question does someone ask themselves before they buy your product? 

He followed it up by saying if they don’t have a space for this question in their brain, it literally bounces off onto the floor. 

This insight allowed me to start thinking about the language people use, how they articulate the struggling moment. 

Christensen said the focus on knowing more about customers has taken firms in the wrong direction. It’s all about focus. Focus and context.

So, what questions are your customers asking themselves when they realize they have a problem? 

Most customers don’t know what’s possible but they do know the outcome they want. 

Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses”. 

Great, but if you had faster horses what would you do that you can’t do today? How much is that worth to you? 

Most customers don’t know what’s possible but they do know the outcome they want. 

Reframe your thinking, find out what your customers’ desired outcome is and create products around this notion of value. Trust me, it works.

The customer rarely buys what the business thinks it sells them. 

Peter Druker said this back in the 1950s, but it’s something that still rings true today. We, as business owners, are misaligned with what we build and what the customer wants. We focus on the supply-side, we force our customers down our sales processes or onto onboarding paths that *we think* they want. 

These questions aren’t meant to be easy. But if you do the work and are happy to refocus your current way of doing things, I think you’ll be surprised with the results.

If your customers aren’t behaving the way they’re ‘supposed to’ – what do you need to do to change your questioning?

Here are four key frameworks within the Jobs to be Done methodology to find the Job of your customer and start to build better products:

  • Supply side vs demand side thinking 
  • Forces of progress
  • The JTBD timeline
  • Social, emotional and functional motivational energy.