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Listen to the things your customers don’t tell you!

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Product development is an important task for companies of all sizes.  Carried out effectively it is an essential way to stay one step ahead of the competition.  Deciding which projects, products enhancements and new inventions to invest in, however, is difficult.

When deciding which product to launch, or which product/service to tweak and enhance, managers and executives quite rightly ask a number of questions.  They’ll want to understand the strengths and opportunities that the organisation enjoys, as well as the environmental threats which might apply.  What is the “next big thing” in the market, what are the analysts saying, what is the zeitgeist?  They’re also likely to ask “which of our products are selling the best, and which are tailing out”.  After all, if a product line is selling well, our customers are sending a strong message that they like it.  It’s often a quick win to tweak an existing product or service.  If people love cheesecake, why not develop 5 new flavours to broaden the options?  Why not develop new packaging, perhaps develop a take-out service, or a special premium “birthday” cheesecake?

This is a logical approach – hear what your customers are telling you, and build more of what they like.  Find new angles, and deepen your niche.  Nobody can argue with that.

But what about the products you don’t provide and the things your customers don’t explicitly tell you.  Could you be missing a huge opportunity?


Picture of man listening
It's important to listen to those things that are *unsaid* as well as said!

How many times have you been to a supermarket looking for a particular product line, only to leave feeling disappointed because it wasn’t stocked?  How many people are begrudgingly buying your trademark red velvet cheesecake, even though they really want a pecan pie?

In a “bricks and mortar” world, tracking what the customer intended to buy is difficult.  It would be necessary to observe each customer and watch how they behave in store, or alternatively rely on questionnaires and interviews.  However, if you’re an online retailer or service provider you are likely to have a plethora of opportunities to understand your customers better.  Consider the following ideas:


  • Incoming Search Terms:  What search terms bought people to your website.  Do you have any products/content to meet that need?  If not, this could be a market for future consideration.
  • What are people searching for within your site:  When people hit your site, what product names do they type into the “search” box.  More importantly, which things are they searching for which aren’t available (either because they are out of stock, or because you simply don’t provide them)?
  • Cross-sell:  You may be familiar with the concept of “Cross elasticity of demand”.  There is a specific definition for this term – but I like to use an analogy.  Think of it like this: If a supermarket sells more Gin, it’ll probably sell more Tonic Water too (so that people can make a relaxing Gin & Tonic).   This leads to the question what related items are people searching for that could be a high-margin quick win?  If you position the two products together, would you increase sales?
  • Feedback:  What type of feedback do your customers give you?  This might be structured feedback (e.g. survey results) although often fantastic feedback comes from general customer enquiries, e-mails, product returns and even complaints.  How do you compile this information to make the most of the insight?


Collating a range of metrics, and data is important to get an overall feeling of how customers and potential customers are reacting to your products and services.  Being able to blend data from a range of sources (online and offline, structured and unstructured data), and mine it from different angles will allow you to spot emerging trends.

I believe there is a real opportunity here for small and mid-market companies.  Considering a range of insightful data allows smart and daring decisions to be made, and mid-market companies can move quickly to capitalise on this.  Collect the right data, implement a mechanism for querying it, find insight, and you’re half way there.

But remember – focus on the things your customers don’t say, as well as the things they do!


How does your organization handle product development? What tips can you share? I’d love to hear from you, please go ahead and leave a comment below.


This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet.

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2 thoughts on “Listen to the things your customers don’t tell you!”

  1. Hi Adrian. I don’t necessarily agree with the concept of ‘adding more flavours to a product that’s selling well’ as often, particularly in these times of complex financial products, the consumer may well really really really like the simplicity of the product and the plain paper bag that it’s wrapped in. Much clearly depends on the product and market place, not to mention the volume of business- e.g. The pile it high sell it cheap stance can often be a wonderfully profitable way to go if it hits what the consumer is seeking.

    1. Graham, thanks so much for your comment, you raise an extremely valid point! In fact, creating *too* much complexity or choice can become a barrier. And you make a very good observation about “keeping it simple and pricing it keenly” — but as you say it depends very much on the type of product (as well as the frequency of purchase — e.g. low cost, regular purchases like a packet of cookies probably drives a different thought pattern than high cost, once-in-a-lifetime purchases like buying a private jet!!).

      I absolutely agree with your comment with regards to Financial Services. The other consideration of course is regulation. Regulation can introduce complexity too… as we all know 🙂

      Thanks again for your comment, take care, speak soon, Adrian.

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