How to read your customer’s mind and create a perfect solution for him

Questionnaire filled with success

In software development each project starts with one basic question: “What is it that I am trying to do for the customer?” But when you think about it, it’s not only a software development question. The same question applies to all creative work, be it writing, building houses or making a dinner at a five-star restaurant. It can even be a useful question in areas such as school assignments and filling your daily errands. The one big question can be divided into six key questions that help you find the correct answer and thus fill the right task so that your customer will come back to you for more business:

  1. Who are you doing the task for? This is crucial for answering the rest of the questions. It might well be that the first person who comes to talk to you about this new project won’t be the one who approves or disapproves the end product. Or even if he is, it might be that someone else will be using the product as well, and in that case that person’s needs should therefore not be ignored either. So, first find out who your customers and end users actually are, and whose work is affected by your product.
  2. What are you doing? This question seems easy to answer, and almost all of the customers have a clear list of things that they think they need to have in the product. Usually it goes along the lines of “everything we had in the old product and some more”. But what they often don’t realize is that maybe what they had in the old system isn’t what they really need. So, you need to listen carefully what the customer asks for and then move on to a deeper level, to the next question.
  3. Why are you doing it? This time I don’t mean soul searching. It’s great to ask yourself that question sometimes as well, but now I want you to look the customer in the eye, put yourself in his shoes and find out what needs he’s trying to fulfill by giving you this task? I suggest that you follow your customer’s everyday work for a while, try to understand as much of it as possible, and really listen to your customer. It’s way too easy to just go with your own preferences and make the kind of product that you imagine the customer would need. But that’s not what the customer is after: He has a real need and he wants the perfect solution for it. Your job is to find the need behind his requirements and create a solution that makes him feel that you read his mind and created something better than he could have asked for.
  4. When should it be done? A project is defined by a start and an end date. And they in turn are defined by how urgent the need is and when does the customer need your solution to be finished. But make sure that your customer understands that in a shorter time frame you cannot make the product as complete as with more time. If you’re making software, you have to balance between the number of features and time. By lowering your quality you could of course create more in a shorter time, but keep in mind that you’re trying to impress your customers, so I suggest not to take that road, not even if your customer asks for it. And one more thing: once you commit to a schedule, do your best to stick with it!
  5. How should you do it? Sometimes customers might have something to say about the tools and methods you should use, but I’d say that it’s the one question that is up to you to answer. After all, you’re the expert in your area. If you weren’t, why would your customer ask you to do the job for him? Keeping that in mind it’s clear that it should be your job to decide the procedures, technologies and processes to use. If I buy a house, I won’t go telling the builders how to do it. I don’t care if they decide to start from the roof towards the ground as long as they deliver a high quality solution that fills my needs. So, keep your eyes open, acquire the expertise needed for your profession and keep it up to date. If your how fails, it’s a pretty clear sign for the customer that you’re not the expert you claim to be, and it’s likely that he won’t be coming back to you next time. So make sure you know what you’re doing!
  6. Are you doing the right thing? Although everything has started the right way, you have found out the exact needs of your customer, decided a great time frame and the best tools and processes available, it might be that something changes along the way. The customer’s business model becomes different, he finds out that there was one more thing he needed to have, or you just got something wrong. That’s not the end of the world, but a pretty normal and expected situation, so there is also a simple solution to it: As often as possible, ask your customer if what you’re doing is what he wants to have in the end result. Once he sees the product he can comment on it and you can change your direction fast, if needed. And if everything is going the way it should, it’s nice for the customer to see that progress is being made.

The key point in all of the questions is CURIOSITY. You need to be interested in your customer and his business as well as your own area of expertise. When you learn about your customer’s needs and the reason why he wants to use your services, the work becomes more interesting to you while at the same time you’re providing better service to the customer. Keeping that in mind will get you far, no matter in what business you are.

7 thoughts on “How to read your customer’s mind and create a perfect solution for him”

  1. Nice post. I’d add something to the basic approach: make sure to get constant feedback on the solution as it’s being developed.

    As a customer having a house built, I’d be pretty annoyed if the builder told me at the end “We decided to use cheap plastic materials for your counter top, since you said budget was a concern – hope you didn’t want granite!”.

    Most customers don’t actually have the details in mind when the project starts, but those details emerge as they see more and more of the solution come into focus. So it’s not enough to read your customer’s mind once, you have to do it over and over until it’s almost like he’s telling you what he wants ;-)

  2. Thanks guys!

    Dave, you’re right, that’s a really important point to keep in mind, and your example illustrates it really well. There is always the risk that we get the first high level needs collected from the customer (“budget is a concern”) and then make lots of assumptions (“let’s use plastic materials”) based on those ideas instead of actually finding out what the client thinks about the details (“granite!”). As you’re saying, constant feedback is a good way to reduce the risk of “thinking for the customer”.

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