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Article 5 min read

How to identify customer needs and expectations using data

Last updated August 27, 2021

You may think your products or services are the bees’ knees, and you might be right. But do you ever have a nagging feeling that they could be a little more successful? It all ultimately comes down to how to meet customer needs and expectations, and it’s less about the product itself than you might think.

Here, we’re going to look at what leads a customer to buy your product rather than someone else’s, and how identifying various data sources, particularly via customer feedback and complaints, can help you understand your customers better.

“Customer needs” definition

Needs and expectations are subtly different in that expectations are open to influence, while needs are a little more set in stone: they’re limitations or requirements that determine customers’ choice of product. As The Pragmatic Institute states, “a need is an opportunity to deliver a benefit to a customer”.

Needs are the things that drive a decision and a purchase. It’s often said that “nobody wants a drill – they want a hole”, and that’s used to sum up customer needs concisely. What is the hole in the customer’s life that they need filling (or drilling)?

But do customers really want a hole, as the maxim tells us? Surely they want a shelf, or a place to put their books, or a way to show off their book collection to friends.

When you start looking deeply into the answer, it starts revealing layers of complexity you might have hitherto ignored. There are psychological elements at play – people buy fashion to satisfy their need to fit in, for example, not necessarily to keep warm and dry. Non-negotiable elements matter too, of course – you might need a new water pipe because you just accidentally drilled through the old one. 

Within the options for a given product type, needs manifest themselves in pragmatic ways: maximum price; quality; product features; durability; size; convenience. If a product fails to meet the list of needs the customer specifies, there is no purchase.

“Customer expectations” definition

Global fast food outlets make more money and serve millions more customers than all the world’s Michelin Starred restaurants. But by most qualitative measures, restaurants serve better food. Does that mean millions of dissatisfied fast food customers? No – most of them probably had their expectations met.

If anything, it’s the expensive restaurant that builds up expectations to the level where satisfaction risks being unmet. People recognise the limitations of a £3 burger, and that could well be their upper spending limit, but customers will want more for a £50 steak.

In short, you can’t have dissatisfied customers if their expectations were so low that anything is a pleasant surprise. If you market your goods as being absolutely terrible, you’re guaranteed satisfied customers – just not many of them.

Marketing can be about tantalising customers with images of luxury and popularity, or it can be selling them the drill to make the hole. Either way, build up their expectations and fail to meet them and you’ve created a lot of dissatisfied customers.

Customer services

It’s well known that a good experience with a customer service agent can turn a disgruntled customer into a happy one. People generally accept that mistakes happen but it’s the way they are dealt with that marks out the customer-focused company.

But with an all-encompassing customer data management strategy, you can actually identify needs and expectations through your own customer service experiences. In fact, the data your customers give you about your products is worth a thousand focus groups if you use it properly. 

Customer experience and product development

In your quest for customer retention, you should constantly be maintaining the balance between expectations and satisfaction. Ideally, exceeding customer expectations through appropriately promised products and great customer service can put you on a path to continual improvement.

The amount of customer information you hold in your CRM is quite breathtaking when you analyse it. With the single customer view, you can see their interactions across all communication channels, from direct contact on your website to interactions on social media. When you draw customer data from large groups of customers, you will start seeing patterns emerging.

One example would be people raising the same complaint about a certain aspect of your product or service. The on button doesn’t alway work; upgrades are overpriced; service is slow. You might have done months of product testing and thought you had really put it through the mill, but once it’s out in the wild, you soon realise that people’s expectations of your products don’t always match the experience.

That can lead you in one of two directions. First, you could change your marketing to better reflect the reality of its operation. The product hasn’t improved, but because expectations are now on a par with reality, satisfaction is maintained.

The second option is to improve the product. Obviously that’s a much more expensive and time-consuming process, which could involve another round of prototyping, testing and retooling factories, but it’s ultimately how you improve as a company. You can then market your new product with its improvements prominently advertised. 

These improvements are the direct result of retaining, analysing and responding to the data customers willingly give you. Can you afford to ignore it when there is so much at stake?

The full picture, courtesy of Zendesk

When you use Zendesk to run your customer services operation, you’ll have all that invaluable customer information at your fingertips. You can sort feedback into types based on product or customer type, and identify those crucial gaps between expectation and satisfaction. 

How you choose to use that information is up to you. Managing expectations might be a fine short-term response. But think of the huge amount of data that can feed back into your products, and you soon see that a powerful customer help desk solution is also a superb product development tool.

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