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Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

I'm involved with a project where one of the common (mis)conceptions is that the customer "doesn't know what they want."  I was just wondering if anyone else out there has learned this to be the case, where in initial discussion, the customer appeared to want one thing, but upon delivery, they really wanted something else.  Have any of you learned any tricks of the trade in trying to get to the root of customer needs up front?  And what tips you off to this, (i.e. how can you tell when the customer really doesn't know)?  Any resources you could point me to for such tactics?  

Aaron A. Spearin
Engineering Six-S'$

"The only constant in life is change." -Bruce Lee

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

When I was a machinist, my motto was "I don't give you want you want.  I give you what you ask for".

This is why there are product specs and contracts.

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

I generally find that the customer wants his <--<<< *gender neutral* project to be the only project you work on, to have it 110% perfect AND to pay nothing for it and any changes he <--<<< *gender neutral, again* makes to it...  TheTick has it correctly stated, as well.

The best way to test something is to squeeze it, slowly, until it breaks!

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

For contract work, that's great.  I'm dealing with non-contract, no obligation type of work, where if I want to make a sale, I need the "REAL" requirements, despite whatever the (potential) customer tells me.

Aaron A. Spearin
Engineering Six-S'$

"The only constant in life is change." -Bruce Lee

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

I try to take good notes that I can refer to when I discuss issues.  If the customer is adamant about being right regardless what my notes say, I likely will not do work for that person again or raise my rates to encourage that person to look for someone else.

I used to have a client with a habit of changing his mind.  One time, we was surprised when I presented an invoice.  He paid it, but I did not hear from him again.

Read the book "Nuts!" about Southwest Airlines.  They also beleive the customer is not always right.

Don Phillips

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

Take notes, put them into a proposal, get their written agreement before the first key is punched.  State clearly in your "Terms" document how changes are handled.

Business is business.

Blue Technik LLC
Advanced Robotics & Automation Engineering

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

You need to take leadership of these projects.  If the picture is fuzzy, you need to draw clear lines.  If the customer's vision is fuzzy, you need to create a clear plan with tangible deliverables that fits within the fuzzy vision and get the customer to agree.

Perhaps take these projects on incrementally.  First phase is to take customer's fuzzy vision and come up with multiple clearer proposals.  When the customer accepts a clear proposal, continue further.

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

Often times, when a client hires an A/E firm, he wants to be advised on the best way to use his money and get expert opinion on the course of action to take, since he is plunging into unfamiliar territory.

We see a lot of engineers providing the owner with different ways to do things, and then expect the owner to make a decision (chose from one of the options presented). It's like a doctor telling you "do you ahve any questions?" No, I don't have questions, I want you Mr. Expert to to tell me what I shpould do, because I am paying you for your "EXPERTISE".
If the owner knew what to do, he wouldn't need an engineer.

My advice is: make three alternates with all their pros and cons and cost estimates, time line, down time,etc..., and present the owner with the options AND make a rcommendation on how he should proceed.

Don't be afraid to make a decision for the owner, if you are going outside of his scope, then he will tell you. But I guarrantee you that if you put your money where you mouth is, your client will respect you for it.

Look at it this way: consider it as your money, how would you spend it? this approach has always cleared the air for me.

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

Presumably you are the professional, so you should inform the client what the best course of action is, to achieve their objective. If you are knowlegable, and the client appreciates this, this will lead to a long term relationship that is productive to both.  If either of the above two is not the case, it is best that the relationship never start.   

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

This is marketing/sale's job.  Someone needs to look at the customers needs and propose a solution in the form of product specs.


RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

You are exactly right, and I should have stated it more clearly.  I am an engineer working on a project to basically improve on the marketing/sales ability to extract such information.  I suspect consultants in the biz face many of the same obstacles as marketing/sales do when dealing with the customer, especially if you are independently trying to market your service. Any tricks of this trade are helpful.  From what I've been reading, it really is a matter of deep listening and redundantly verifying customer needs.

Aaron A. Spearin
Engineering Six-S'$

"The only constant in life is change." -Bruce Lee

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

An excellent statement of work, preferably written by the customer, is the only way to go.

A persistent problem with this is that customers may write something so thorough that he/she can't afford to pay for it or that there's no room for "stuff that comes up."

Specmanship is an art that shouldn't be left to marketing folk.

When all else fails, ask, ask, ask and clarify.  Unless you're really in a closed bid process, that telephone is your best friend.
Regards, MEF

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

Always seek to have the answers to persistent problem areas prior to the questions being asked. The further out in front of the "nagging" issues that come up you can be, the better. The more documented "here's how we do that" points you can have the better as well. Example: A good realtor knows what is for sale and doesn't have to look it up with the client. Homework, homework, homework. If your customer needs good solutions and their money is green, that's what you're there for.


RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

Where I work we basically have three levels people work themselves up-to (this will make sense in a second)

The first Level is just your typical sales person, no engineering background, and basically he will sell product to people who basically know the serial number of the product they want.

Level 2- If the customer does not know exactly what they want, but are familiar with what “we do” they are passed to the Application “Engineer.” (Someone how has a degree in engineering… but is doing sales.)  Normally this is where it stops and he hopefully can clear up any problem.  

Level- 3 However is this is still any confusion; the person is passed on to a design engineer (me), which gets handed notes form everyone else. I often ask them enough questions about what they want to do, so I have a pretty good idea what will be best for their application. If they don’t seem to be picturing what happening is have them visit out web page so they have a better idea of what can be done. Normally the person wants something not standard. So I come up with a concept drawing and quote…. If they don’t like it I work up something else or then the fun starts…

Only major Con- This works well as long as the Applications engineer knows his limits and when to pass work on. I have seen numerous projects screwed up because the application engineer through he would try something.  

Other con, you need the staffing and demand for product.

Major Pro – Major/Long term customers know which “level” to call right away for projects, so the process becomes pretty direct.

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

Gymmeh, Thanks.  This is along the lines of the route was begining to think.  Getting deep rooted answers to customer requirements may not lie in the hands of the first line of interaction.  These sales people have SALES on the brain, and follow a certain personality type for being extroverted, charming and persuasive. Good to make the sale and have people feeling good about themselves.  This personality type isn't typically associated with deep active listening and empathizing with a customer's need.  I think this should come from the next couple levels up, as you suggested. The organization I'm working with has a similar hierarchy of service, but I'm not sure it's being used this effectively.  Thanks for the reply.

Aaron A. Spearin
Engineering Six-S'$

"The only constant in life is change." -Bruce Lee

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

Some good advice above, especially like Tygerdawg & Deskdiva.  

To some extent it can be summed up by that design 101 gem "know your requirement".  

If the customer can't explicitly define his requirement then you need to formulate it and have him agree to it before starting any real work.

Where this needs technical input get engineering involved in helping prepare the SOW/Spec/quote etc.  Perhaps adding an Engineering sign-off to all quotes if this isn't too cumbersome.

That way even if sales haven't asked up front Engineering get a chance to shut the barn door before the horse has bolted.

One potentially bad thing is that this will typically require more effort up front before you're guaranteed getting paid for it.  This cost needs to be allowed for.

You may also need to be willing to either no-bid when the up front effort isn't justified by the risk/benefit.  Some places I know will rather than no-bid just put in an extremely high bid to deliberately lose.  Not sure I fully comprehend the logic but it's something to do with customer perceptions.

Different industry so not directly applicable but at my last place for one part of the business any job that had significant Engineering input we actually did most of the costing and bid prep.  The other side had their bids prepared by sales/marketing types with limited technical knowledge.  I'll let you guess which side made money on pretty much every contract and which lost money on pretty much every contract.  

KENAT, probably the least qualified checker you'll ever meet...

RE: Finding out what the customer REALLY wants

KENAT has a very important variable in the equation, how you get paid.

The "three level" method used here, is also dynamic for how the pricing works out.

The first level deals with, "List Price" products which are basically out of the box.

By the third level, it is normally "Bid" and often a lot of the engineering is done before we even "have" the project (which is hard to avoid).  And the customer gets full drawings and has to sign before anything else is done, with a statement that they understand the implementation of the design... bla bla

This insures we don’t loose money because a sales man promised someone the sun, there is the option for an engineer and step in and say...the placement of that bolt is going to cost $10k more where you want it... do it this way.

It’s not perfect because some projects have and will slip through... but they are normally caught by the production controller... and then someone gets a talkin’ to.

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