Customers don’t know what they want

by | 22.10.2022

If you are interested in a sleek sports car, do you need to know the function of the piston return spring or the operating circuit of the DC transformer? Is it important to you whether a curve drill or a brass magnet was used during the production of the car?¹

“Customers don’t know what they want!”

What do you think when you hear this statement?

“That’s a bit true.”

Or: “That’s a terrible statement! How presumptuous.”

Or maybe: “That’s exactly the chance to set us apart from the competition.”

I can’t tell you what I thought last time I heard the statement about ignorant customers. Maybe a little of everything? But the more I think about it, the clearer my opinion becomes.

What customers (maybe) want

People are individual. People are customers. Customers are individual. This is not surprising. But this individuality is not only expressed in different wishes and needs. It is also largely responsible for the fact that two customers who say the same thing may mean something different. Or say different things, but mean the same thing.

There are customers who formulate comprehensive specifications with tens of thousands of requirements and others commission a partner succinctly with “You know us and what we need”. Of course, there are also customers who want A today and B tomorrow. Customers change their minds – this is part of everyday life for many service providers. But if customers ask for C the day after tomorrow, it will be difficult for the service provider. Should he start with the development of C or should he wait another day for the almost certain D? What happens to the costs that may have already been invested in the development of A or B? How can the agreed schedule be adhered to if requirements change daily?

Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, is believed to have once said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.  This quote is often used in the context of inventions and disruptive innovations. Indirectly, it’s also evidence for customers who aren’t able to look beyond their own nose and see what they really need. Regardless of whether ideas and new developments really have to be disruptive or not simply evolutionary, such a statement is for me rather proof of what service providers want to hear and what questions they therefore ask.

What service providers (want to) hear

“Do you like the colour green?”
“Yes, because it stands for peacefulness. And it promotes qualities like helpfulness, endurance, tolerance and contentment.”
“Wow, you’ve done a lot of research on colour theory! Do you like square or rounded download buttons better?”
“I find rounded ones more appealing.”

What happens next? The service provider integrates green, rounded buttons on the customer’s website. This is understandable at first glance. And at second glance it’s completely wrong. Perhaps not with a view to a conversion to be achieved, such as downloading a PDF, for example. But with a view to the customer’s wishes. If the customer had said, “I want a green download button with rounded corners on page XY”, then a green, rounded button could have met the customer’s requirements. Anyone familiar with green, rounded buttons will formulate questions in such a way that they can interpret the answers accordingly. An expert in green buttons thinks and develops green buttons. And then he will explain to the customer why it makes sense to place the green button in the middle and above the web page fold.

Of course, this is a simplified example. Probably you can easily transfer it to your domain. If you develop software on behalf of a customer and your customer asks for a login mechanism for users, are you thinking of a rights concept with write, read, change and delete rights? Do you then recommend your customer, for example, the right to finally delete, quasi as a built-in security against deletion by mistake? If a customer wants to be more agile, do you recommend Scrum as a method? Do you recommend flood insurance when buying real estate or another property? Winter tyres or public transport? A one or three minute video?

What good service providers do

It is obvious that service providers offer services or products with which they generate sales and profits. Depending on the situation, a video studio will offer its customers a one- or three-minute video. However, it will rarely recommend the customer to use a simple graphic instead of the video, even if it communicates the desired message more easily. No one can seriously expect a service provider to act altruistically and forgo orders and revenues. In many cases he would rob himself of his business basis, because a tyre salesman lives from selling tyres. A recommendation to simply use public transport in winter, as it is safer and probably cheaper, makes no sense from his point of view. Who would like to sell real estates convenient in flood areas, will recommend naturally rather the conclusion of an appropriate insurance and will refer to the favorable purchase conditions. But even in such situations it is important to know what customers want and need, what their goals are and why they are doing it. Understanding the customer is essential.

In software development, there are numerous methods and formats for understanding customers.

  • It’s about determining the system context,
  • managing stakeholders, and
  • identifying requirements – complete, consistent, and coherent. Scenarios and creativity techniques help.
  • Of course, the findings must be checked and documented.

The entire procedure follows a process and as such on the one hand complex, on the other hand essential to satisfy the needs of customers. But what is a requirement at all?

What at first glance might seem like a trick question has a serious background: people understand terms differently. When it comes to requirements, for example, there are two different interpretations of two organizations – the International Requirements Engineering Board (IREB) and the International Institute of Business Analysis. It is therefore important for organisations to develop an understanding of a common language.

  • Is a feature larger than an epic or is it smaller?
  • Is an change request something other than a requirement and therefore handled differently?

It is important for a service provider to know what a customer understands by concrete terms and what associations he associates with them. Opinions vary, however, as to whether service providers should correct strongly individualised interpretations or whether it is sufficient to understand what the customer means by an incorrectly used term.

An opportunity for customers

It would be nice if it worked in the real business world as simply as described. Often customers don’t want to invest time in background discussions or requirements workshops, they don’t want to document goals or discuss technical risks. From their point of view, they have done and described everything that a service provider needs to know in order to obtain a suitable solution. But at the latest when delivery takes place, these customers fall from all clouds. Whatever they had in mind, they didn’t want a green download button and they didn’t want A, B or C either.

There are a number of ways in which customers can get solutions from service providers that they want.² All a customer has to do is get involved with the service provider and the cooperation with him. A service provider could, for example, carry out an apprenticeship with a user, look over his shoulder at work and thus better meet his needs. He could develop a prototype as a functional but simplified test model of a planned software and ask the customer for feedback. Or the customer could influence the backlog refinement and give his opinion early in the Sprint review. While any form of interaction increases the customer’s effort, it also improves the chances of getting a product that actually meets their needs. In addition, all the techniques mentioned offer the option of expressing opinions and wishes only in the course of a development.


“Customers don’t know what they want!” If this statement is true, it is a great opportunity for service providers to change this. It benefits both the customer and the service provider. The service provider can help the customer to formulate his actual goals and needs. These findings can be used to determine requirements and subsequently planned and implemented. The customer can also help the service provider by striving for a cooperative partnership and by giving continuous and regular feedback. And the result is a solution that helps the customer and does not require the service provider to make expensive and time-consuming improvements. Both parties win.

PS: What do you actually think of the statement: “The customer is our focus – and thus in the way!”?



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[1] There is neither a piston return spring nor a DC transformer in cars. Even curve drills and brass magnets have not yet been developed.
[2] Recently I read the statement: “We develop for our customers the things they need, not the things they want”. Also an interesting thought, isn’t it?

Michael Schenkel has published more articles in the t2informatik Blog, for example 

t2informatik Blog: Customer retention - an outdated model?

Customer retention – an outdated model?

t2informatik Blog: Unique Selling What?

Unique Selling What?

t2informatik Blog: Mission customer focus

Mission customer focus

Michael Schenkel
Michael Schenkel

Head of Marketing, t2informatik GmbH

Michael Schenkel has a heart for marketing - so it is fitting that he is responsible for marketing at t2informatik. He likes to blog, likes a change of perspective and tries to offer useful information - e.g. here in the blog - at a time when there is a lot of talk about people's decreasing attention span. If you feel like it, arrange to meet him for a coffee and a piece of cake; he will certainly look forward to it!​