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How to Really Understand What the Customer Wants

how to understand what the customer really needs

Knowing your market is essential in creating a successful business. As such, companies spend millions on market research. Decades of data analysis, surveys and psychoanalytical tests compiled to cleverly reveal our deepest, most intimate, desires. All of this makes the marketer’s job easy, doesn’t it? Well, put very simply, no.

This traditional approach to market research in fact tells us very little about who we are trying to market to. The myriad tests, quizzes, interviews and behavioural observations reveal a lot about how we respond to things, but in fact say very little about what it is we really want. Those fancy paperclips you like so much aren’t based upon a primitive desire, rather, the urge to file your papers more stylishly than you otherwise might have is little more than a reaction to what’s already available to us. We see them displayed neatly on the shelves of stationary shops and realise, vaguely, that it’s what we’ve been looking for all along.

How then, do we truly come to understand the needs of our target audience? Through delving a little deeper, what they are looking for becomes more apparent to us. The central task of the marketer is to think creatively. She must be the interpreter of the unspoken desire. Questionnaires will never substantially live up to this, because we just don’t know what it is that we want well enough.

The essential tools needed to detect what it is we truly need, you may be surprised, are introspection and empathy. Of course, our emotional and psychological development helps us in all aspects of our personal lives, but why shouldn’t it be applied to our professional lives? By utilising these intelligent skills, we can begin to identify what is it we really want.


Introspection – something that many of us are all to unfamiliar with. It’s an often uncomfortable process, one to be avoided as much as possible. There was that thing on Netflix you wanted to watch anyway, right?

Self reflection is a vital, yet hugely neglected aspect of our lives. Approached with severe caution, if at all, introspection is a daunting experience, revealing a colourful array of quirks, traits and emotions we’d much rather not have to deal with. But having internal conversations with oneself is an important way of getting to know better what it is you want and what it is you really need, or what is really missing from your life.

Through getting to know ourselves better, we are also able to understand those around us with more insight, clarity and assurance. You might begin to see why people react to situations in particular ways; “I think he might be sulking and uncooperative because he’s been feeling a bit neglected by the rest of the team, recently”. These are ways of filling in the gaps, and identifying what it is people really need, in order to feel satisfied.

This works in life, so why can’t it in business, too? Try applying this tool and see what stones you can overturn, you might be surprised what you find underneath.

Secondly, introspection reveals new ways of creative thinking. We all have creative thoughts, but innovators are the people that don’t dismiss them as silly or childish, just to be entertained for a few moments. The people that pursue those sometimes seemingly unrealistic ideas are those that often challenge what it is we think is acceptable. Through challenging preconceived norms and conventions, huge movements can be made. As in, not just through the invention of a more stylish version of the paper clip, but actually changing the concept of what it means to file papers.


Sympathy and empathy are two concepts that are frequently used to mean the same thing. This is in fact wrong. Sympathy and empathy are two distinctively different phenomena. Sympathy is the ability to feel close to someone on the basis of a shared experience. You are able to tap into your memory bank of emotions in order to understand what a person is going through. If you had a hard time during school, you can understand what your child is currently struggling with.

Empathy, however, is a trickier task. It is the ability to completely put yourself into another person’s perspective. To really imagine how they are feeling. Even though you have never had the experience of what’s going on for the other person, you are able to tap into your imaginative memory, and piece together your experiences in order to imagine how they are feeling in their current situation.

You may have blazed through school with flying colours, but you see your child suffering with their homework, you can’t use sympathy; because you have no experience of what it was like. But we can use our imagination to build bridges from things we do know about from the inside to this new territory. You know what it’s like to be frustrated. You understand the fear of humiliation. You know what it’s like to feel that something is maddeningly incomprehensible. Through your relevant experiences you are able to piece together how it is they are feeling. This is the phenomenon of empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to enter into the hidden desires and unspoken needs and pains of people who are not from your tribe. It allows us to take seriously what it might be like to be someone else. Empathy is also a crucial factor in the growth of many enterprises – and the lack of it is a huge (though easily ignored) obstacle to success.

Emotional development leads to success.

Another common idea is that in business you must be thick skinned, tough, show no sign of emotional vulnerability (or as many people see it – weakness). You must conduct business with brutishness and cold command. This traditional view of business is progressively becoming outdated. Overtime, we will come to realise and introduce into our discourse, the idea of harnessing these uniquely human characteristics in order to better run our businesses, structure our companies, and just “get on”.

The ability to introspect and empathise allows you not only to understand yourself and the people around you better, but it allows you to conduct business more ethically. Through a deeper, more insightful understanding of your fellow humans, you are able create environments where people feel supported, and thusly, will flourish. Through developing these two vital, human, social skills, you are better equipped to understanding the actual needs of people. When you discover what that is, you will surely be on to a winning cause.

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