Innovate to Uncover Clients’ Unmet Needs

The ability to anticipate and satisfy your customers’ needs is an important indicator for the future success of your company. Understanding the root causes of their compliments, complaints, and behaviors will help you become a better innovator; outperform the competition; and retain happy, loyal customers. By uncovering and leveraging unmet needs, you can put your company in the position to generate more business.

There are two parts to really understanding your customers as a group. The first is to understand the needs, concerns, and cares they have and are happy to share with others. There are many ways to accomplish this: surveys and focus groups are common methods. The second is to understand their unmet and unspoken needs. Why is it important to learn and understand their unknown needs?

As Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” The most disruptive innovations often come from understanding what is driving customer complaints and behaviors and then devising ways to fill those voids. So, how do you go about understanding your customers’ unknown needs?


Ask both current and potential clients the right questions, and listen carefully to the answers. Make sure you’re asking questions that can help you learn something new. Oftentimes, companies will design surveys that reaffirm information they already know and want to hear. However, to innovate, you need to learn something new to drive original actions and approaches.

Rephrase the questions you ask clients until you start receiving provocative answers that test your assumptions. Ask what they don’t like about your business, what the ideal company in your industry would be like (price point, products, services, etc.), why they do business with your competitors, and what companies in other industries they admire and why. These out-of-the-ordinary questions will give you new perspectives on your business and your customers’ wants. You can do this in a cost effective way by assigning one employee to set up an online survey using (or another online survey company).

Then, send it out to your email lists and also get out the word through social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.). If response rate is low, offer your customers an incentive to participate (iPad raffle anyone?).


Observe your clients’ behaviors. Observation will help you figure out things they’re not telling you or aren’t even aware of. Big companies often conduct ethnographic studies to accomplish this. These studies, in which researchers observe, interview, and interact with a particular set of individuals, attempt to understand and describe the practices, beliefs, or cultural influences of that group.

For example, a large consumer goods company followed housewives around for a week and realized that many were coming up with haphazard contraptions to clean out-of-reach areas. They realized they had an opportunity to develop a new product that enabled easier cleaning of hard-to-reach spots and ended up with a new successful product in their portfolio. This company was not lacking focus groups or customer surveys, but customers never reported in those channels that cleaning high areas was a pain point. It was only through the observational study that researchers for the firm identified this new opportunity.

For smaller organizations without the budget to hire an agency to conduct ethnographic studies, an effective way to accomplish the same goal is to look at your own needs—keep a journal of the challenges you experience during your day, especially when it’s in regard to your own product. If you don’t use your product or aren’t faced with the same needs as your customers, offer discounts to clients who will allow you to observe them engaging with the product, or fill out a journal for a day or two and share it with you. Give the right incentives to the right people in the right ways and you will be able to work within a budget and learn about customers’ unmet and unknown needs.


Test your solutions and accelerate the feedback process. Build the most limited iteration of your new product that you can ship/deliver and then get customer feedback to quickly improve the product. Integrate in the feedback you receive, and then repeat the process. It helps to identify yearly adopters of your product or services and grant them access. These individuals believe in your product and are more willing to try out new editions. You’ll be able to get some good feedback from them without losing too much.

One very smart example of this customer testing is a startup that had an interesting idea and wanted to prove that it would gain traction with customers before creating a product demo. They purchased a few Google adwords campaigns (campaigns can be as little as $5/day) creating both advertisements that described their product, and advertisements that complained about a potential competitor. The sheer numbers of clicks on the complaints gave them enough impetus to start developing their product.


This is potentially the most important step. While a lot of companies become galvanized around the idea of understanding their customers better, this usually results in a one time “event.” However, understanding your customers is a continuous process; something that must be built into the very fiber of your organization. Build in time for understanding your customers. If your business is big enough to have a customer-facing front (salespeople) make sure you interview them every few months to get their input on customer needs.

Listen to your customers, observe them, and work to understand the root cause of their issue, then formalize your solution and aggressively test it. Make sure your solutions are addressing real customer concerns and are not just a slight improvement on the old way things were done. Understanding your customers by following these steps can greatly improve your company’s ability to continuously innovate and satisfy your customers. Remember, don’t just make a “faster horse,” leverage your understanding of human needs and behavior to create something disruptive.