Volume 16, 
April, 2018


The power of asking the right questions
Stop guessing what customers are thinking


Sheila Mello and Wayne Mackey

Do you enjoy going to the dentist?

Neither do I.

What do you dislike about the experience? Missing time from work? Getting bad news about the state of your teeth? The anticipation of being in pain?

And what would make a visit to the dentist more enjoyable, if not exactly delightful? Maybe shortening the duration of your appointment. Maybe minimizing the amount of pain involved in procedures. Maybe minimizing your anxiety about the pain.

Most of us can relate to the experience of going to the dentist. But fewer can relate to the experience of being the dentist. And if you’re designing a product for the dentist, that’s exactly what you need to do.

BE the dentist

Since a sci-fi consciousness-switching device doesn’t exist, the only way to experience being the dentist is to ask questions. The only way we understand other people is by asking questions. Even if you’re selling business-to-business, the entity making a decision about buying your product is a person.

These can’t be random questions. Rather, they need to be part of a process designed to delve deeply—in an unbiased way—into your potential customers’ experience.

And there may be another person further along the chain who is equally important: the end consumer—the dentist’s patient, the architect’s client, the restaurateur’s diner. In a B2B setting, the more you know about your customer’s customer, the better chance you’ll have of creating a product that delights your customer.

Finding common ground

Even if you are a dentist, your experience will not be identical to that of all other dentists in the world. We have much in common as human beings. But we also have many differences—in age, demographics, culture, attitude, knowledge, and skill, to name a few. Often, we don’t have a clue what life is like for other people. That’s why relying on personal experience as a basis for creating and marketing products goes only so far.

Many startups are born from a founder’s need for a product or a new technology in search of a problem it helps to solve. Apple and Google are classic examples. However, for a company to thrive and flourish beyond a single product, it needs to develop processes and adopt practices that let its designers understand the broader world—and the needs of people who are different from themselves.

Talking isn't the same as listening

I recently had a hallway conversation about customers with the product manager of a large industrial products company. He assured me that there was no need to do anything different from what he’s currently doing. “I talk to my customers all the time,” he said. “They tell me what they want and I build it.”

But talking isn’t the same as asking and listening. When I asked the product manager what was the biggest problem his customers had with operating his equipment, he could only guess. When I asked which new products he had introduced with higher margins than previous products, he could cite none.

Innovative new products don’t come from talking. They come from asking, listening, and observing. When asking questions of customers, it’s never about you, your products, or your company. It’s all about how the customer does the customer’s business.

—Wayne Mackey

Steve Jobs is famous for not talking to his customers. Google evolved from a particular question asked by a graduate student. But for those companies to evolve into the behemoths they are today required a shift that allowed designers to feel what potential customers were feeling. Despite public assertions to the contrary, these companies understand the problems their potential customers experience by asking questions directly or by studying how customers behave.

Entrepreneur First (EF), a new kind of entrepreneurial venture fund, based its funding model on the belief that business ideas—the “aha” moments traditionally so valued in the startup world—are of secondary importance. EF seeks to fund individuals rather ideas. It looks for potential founders who are inquisitive and who want to make a difference in the world. This discourages founders from creating a product in search of a problem.

Even a large organization that employs a range of individuals with different life circumstances and attitudes can get in trouble by relying on internal ideas of what the market wants. Often, such reliance leads to shouting matches based on unprovable assertions. The most vocal or powerful faction wins the argument—and the prevailing view doesn’t represent the true needs of the market.

Bridging the empathy gap

In our personal lives, art, music, literature, and film offer opportunities to transcend individual experience and see the world from a different point of view. In that sense, they become a kind of consciousness-switching device. Businesses, however, require more rigorous methods: ethnographic research, interviewing, data analysis. These tools allow you to put yourself in the position of a potential customer.

If you develop dental instruments, you listen to dentists. But not just dentists. You also listen to dental office managers, dental hygienists, and yes, patients. Where’s the pain—literally and figuratively? What are the challenges of each of the constituents who might need your offering?

I was interested to find that someone in the dental instrument market has been thinking about these things. And not just thinking about them, but creating solutions that researchers have studied. “Computer-controlled local anesthetic delivery (CCLAD) is one the method to reduce patient pain during local anesthesia; it is a device that slowly administers anesthetics by using a computerized device to control the injection speed.”[1] The additional capabilities CCLAD provides had the potential to delight the end user—the apprehensive patient lying back in the dental chair with his or her mouth open wide—although research didn’t show as much of an advantage in pain reduction as its creators might have hoped.

Who will pay, and how much?

It’s great to have a solution that will delight dental patients and thereby turn their dentists from pain inflictors to heroes. But dentists have to deem the solution valuable enough to pay for. Does it improve significantly on existing solutions?

To answer this question involves—you guessed it—asking. Go back to the research and dive deeper. What’s the value proposition? Maybe the device saves time, allowing a dentist to see more patients. Maybe it makes patients happier and more relaxed, so they recommend the dental practice to friends or on ratings sites. Or maybe the dentist simply has the desire to practice dentistry in a more humane way, and so is willing to make sacrifices in other parts of the practice to be able to afford to reduce patients’ pain.

Whatever the impetus, the dental instrument company needs to find the motivator that will entice the dentist’s practice to invest in new equipment.

And that’s accomplished with the right questions, asked in the right way.

How do you understand the varied experiences of your potential and existing customers?

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