Products and Customer Need

Disclaimer: This is a timeboxed stream of consciousness rather than a polished piece of writing. How I express some of the ideas could likely use some work. Also, as always I will inspect and adapt my position on these ideas (maybe even over the course of the article), so please give me any relevant feedback.

This idea triggered from a podcast featuring Seth Godin*. One concept he put forward was a marketing “revolution”. The example goes, no one wants a quarter inch drill bit, they want a quarter inch hole. The idea is you shift from marketing your product to marketing how you fulfill a customers need. He added to this by tracing further up. They don’t want a hole, they want a way to insert a toggle to mount a shelf. They don’t want that they want… and keep going up until you hit something like the feeling of happiness from x. Fundamental feelings of safety, joy, love… these are what people are really seeking in their lives.

This resonated with me as a feel that we are still undergoing this revolution in regard to software development. There are parts of our industry that still sell the drill bit. They are particularly common in giant projects with long timelines (and some would argue limited success). A lot of the time they are in the government space, or in a regulated industry.

There are others who are living the mantra and realise that their product is merely a means to being a service for the customer. Offering a service to the customer means they can talk in different language “we are a healthy lifestyle company” not a gym. They try to get the customer involved and close the loop on solving not the stated requirements, (can I do a spin class) but the underlying need of the customer (can I have the energy to run around the backyard with my kids).

It is particularly pernicious when you are selling a product. When you have a product, you have your hammer and are looking for nails. Customer feedback is on features in the product. Product planning and work roadmaps refer to getting this or that functionality. We assume achieving the feature will automatically equal solving the customer need.

We also don’t stop to ask is this product even the best way to address this customer need. The drill bit company isn’t focussing on a customers underlying need. They just offer a generic solution and hope that customers find them (“I think I’ll drill a hole there”). The product is an end in and of itself. The drill bit manufacturer will rarely pivot to selling freestanding bookshelves.

I’m not saying there is no place for offering generic solutions, but those spaces are often a race to the bottom and not a good place to be for a company long term.

There are further implications (around planning, workflow and estimation), but I will build on that in another post.

So how deep are you in the customers needs heirarchy? Is there anything still underneath the “need” you are satisfying?

Chris Morgan

*1. Podcast: The Tim Ferriss Show Ep 343 –