We’ve all heard that the best way to start a new business is to find a need and fill it. The stories of entrepreneurs who have built successful businesses from this concept are legendary and entertaining to hear. Many of us have found ourselves wondering “why didn’t I think of that?”
But then we go back to our roles within our established companies and completely forget this very simple concept. For some reason, understanding what our client “truly” needs doesn’t seem important. After all, we’re the experts, so we certainly know what the client needs better than they do.
We’ll just build it and they will come.
This might have worked for Kevin Costner but this isn’t Hollywood. There are too many stories of unsuccessful companies that built it and no one came. Understanding the needs of your clients is critically important to success. Especially if your business provides services.
Those that manufacture products have a better chance of convincing the customer that they truly “need” a new product they’ve managed to live without so far. But even that requires some luck. The rest of us had better learn how to properly identify the critical needs of our customers and focus our attention on how to fulfill those needs.
What are you working on today? Are you customer focused? Do you understand what the customer really needs your product or service to do? Have you asked them? Have you tried to look at your product or service through their line of sight? Or, are you focusing most of your efforts on fulfilling the requirements detailed on the requirements document?
Maybe some of you are thinking that understanding the needs of the client is not your job. That’s what the sales team is supposed to do. Or marketing. Maybe the research and development team should do that. But not me. I’m the project manager. I do what I’m told to do.
I rarely talk to the client. How am I supposed to know what they need?
If you are truly customer focused then every project you work should clearly define the customer need your project will fill. It should be identified, documented and clearly understood by everyone associated. You can build the best drill on the planet but if it doesn’t make the type of hole your client needs, they won’t be satisfied. Customers are not buying a drill. They are really buying the hole the drill will make. That is their need.
Those who clearly understand the needs of their customers are the ones who blow past everyone else with innovative products and services. For example, imagine that you work for a bank, and maybe some of you do. You are told that you need to design and develop the best checkbook your bank has ever provided. The requirements document is complete. The statement of work looks good. You need to put together a team and get it done.
A customer focused project manager will start by asking what need the checkbook fulfills. They will make sure that customer needs are clearly understood by each of the project stakeholders. These are the teams that are so focused on the customer; they come up with better ways of fulfilling the same need. Have you used a Debit Card lately?
A non-customer focused project manager might lead their team in designing and developing the world’s most functional checkbook. This is fine but would anyone like to guess how much longer consumers will use checkbooks? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that you stop following requirements documents. I’m just suggesting that you take the extra step of understanding what client need (internal or external customer) the project will meet.
There are many tools, techniques and concepts that help you capture the “Voice of the Customer”. It would be a good idea to make these tools a part of your project management training.
One popular technique is called Quality Function Deployment (QFD). QFD is a systematic process that places intense focus on client needs and translates those needs into detailed requirements. There are many uses for this tool that is also known as The House of Quality, but once you have the knowledge of how to use it, you can customize the process to fulfill your specific purpose. It is one of the best ways to ensure those project requirements are aligned to client needs.
Another technique is called a CTQ (Critical to Quality) Tree. This tool allows you to translate client needs into internal drivers and ultimately into specific, measurable requirements.
The most basic technique is to ask your client. You might be surprised by how much information they will share. Occasionally they’ll tell you more than you want to know, like how they think you should fulfill their need. Listen politely and thank them. Most importantly, listen to what the product or service needs to do.
Recently I went into a fast food restaurant with my family. My son had his baseball uniform on, as we were on our way home from his game.
After we had placed our order, I was approached by one of the employees to participate in a short client interview. In appreciation of my time, she would give me a coupon book filled with free ice cream coupons for anyone wearing a sports uniform.
Clearly, I was her target customer and she got my attention with the lure of ice cream. I agreed to do the interview. To my surprise, the interviewer did not ask me one question about that particular restaurant chain. Every question focused on me, my family and our needs. This company is clearly changing their focus towards the customer.
It seems as if lately every company is claiming to be client focused. It must be the latest buzz phrase that marketing departments have latched on to. My observation is that many companies don’t really understand what that entails. Does yours? We should all take a lesson from the many successful entrepreneurs that simply found a need and filled it.