Making Sense of Customer Requirements and Needs

Customers will come at you with requirements, but they don’t always know what they need.

Henry Ford famously said that his customers would have requested “a faster horse” . But what they really needed was a faster mode of transport to get them from A to B.

A deep understanding of your customers' requirements and needs and how they relate to each other is invaluable. Product development, marketing, sales and support are all better able to serve your customers.

But making sense of customer needs and requirements can be tricky. Here's how to differentiate between the two and how needs shape requirements.

Needs ≠ Requirements

Needs and requirements are often used interchangeably, but they're not the same.

Needs are the motivators that drive a customer to buy a product or service. An example of a physical need that arises every day is the need to eat, which propels masses of hungry people to the supermarkets.

But needs don’t always have physical drivers. They can also be psychological and subconscious.

As an iPhone owner, I like to convince myself that I upgrade every couple of years because of its superior features. Upon reflection, I think the real reason I’m drawn to newer models is probably because they speak to my desired lifestyle (to be rich!). This is an example of a psychological need.

In Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs , the highest-level needs are related to respect by others and belonging to a group.

Infographic of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Using this framework to understand customer needs, we can see that Apple's products appeal mostly to our higher-level needs.

A requirement , on the other hand, is a need that is explicitly articulated . In the case of the iPhone, for example, a customer may require a certain amount of storage.

Requirements are easier to spot because they are on the surface. Needs, in contrast, can get a little fuzzy because they run under the surface. They are worth uncovering, however, because they make a much better compass than requirements.

Let’s look at the different types of needs and requirements.

Service needs and requirements

Customers don’t usually have articulated service requirements. They don't usually call a hotline with the intention of waiting for a specific number of minutes ( “I will wait for max 5. minutes” ). It's rather about an underlying need of speedy service.

In a previous article, we covered the core principles of customer service . These principles also function well to explain customer needs:

  1. Speed. In our instant gratification culture , customers don’t like waiting. They want their queries to be resolved quickly and on the first contact.
  2. Accuracy. Customers want accurate information to make informed decisions about products. Although speed is of the essence, answers should also be accurate to avoid repeated contact and ultimately, dissatisfaction.
  3. Clarity. Your answers should be clear and easy for your customer to understand. Use words your customer will understand and demystify jargon with the ELI5 technique .
  4. Transparency. Customers trust companies that are transparent . This means keeping promises, being open about delays and opening up to mistakes.
  5. Accessibility. If your customer has a problem with your product, they don’t want to jump through hoops to contact you. Low-effort channels such as live chat and self-service options remove these obstacles.
  6. Empowerment. Customers want to feel in control of their experiences. Flexible policies, self-service options and collecting feedback from them all serve to give them a sense of control.
  7. Friendliness. Human interactions are the cornerstone of customer service. Therefore, it goes without saying that service reps should be friendly.

Although people don’t tend to have articulated requirements regarding customer service, it makes sense for companies to set them up for their own service delivery. This comes in the shape of service standards . By communicating these to your customers, you manage their expectations .

Product needs and requirements

Customers tend to have much clearer requirements when it comes to products. How clear also depends on their stage in the customer journey.

Brain neurons lightning up.

Customers with extensive product knowledge likely have articulated requirements, while the wishes for those in the early research stages will be more vague.

One useful way to understand the relevance of your customers' requirements is to the Kano model . This model was originally developed to guide feature development, but we can also use it to assess the extent to which customer requirements make sense.

In the model, a visual map depicts the correlation between features and user satisfaction:

The Kano Model.
Kano Model: AgileConnection

The model shows that an increasing number of features does not necessarily lead to satisfaction, if they don’t meet core needs:

Threshold attributes. These are features customers take for granted when done well, but lead to tremendous dissatisfaction when not fulfilled.

An example of this is a passenger airbag in a car. You wouldn’t notice it on a daily basis but you’d definitely be hacked off if it didn’t do its job in a life-or-death situation.

Performance. These attributes result in satisfaction when fulfilled and dissatisfaction when not fulfilled.

In a car, air-conditioning provides welcome relief on a hot day, but is not otherwise necessary. In hotter countries though, it’s a basic need and would lead to immense dissatisfaction if faulty.

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Excitement. These attributes provide satisfaction when achieved fully, but do not cause dissatisfaction when not fulfilled.

In a car, a voice-activated parking-assist system helps you steer your car safely into a parking space, but it’s not a necessity.

Indifferent. These features don’t make any difference to customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction and can be considered as wishes or whims.

Tesla’s fart app is highly amusing and alleviates the boredom of long-haul journeys, but it’s far from a necessity.

Picture of Tesla's fart app.
Tesla's fart app. Amusing? Yes. Necessary? Probably not.

Reverse. Excessive product attributes which could cause customer dissatisfaction. In one Simpsons episode , Homer is given free rein to design his own car. Besides a plethora of useless features, he also decides to add horns that play “La Cucaracha” .

What if you can’t meet the customer’s requirements?

Even with the best products, there'll be gaps between their functionalities and their customers’ requirements. Instead of responding to feature requests with a "no" or “we’ll add it to our product roadmap" , it’s worth delving into these requirements to uncover the deeper needs. Like Ford, you may discover superior ways to deliver on the same need.

Often a customer requests a feature or a service which the company is not able to offer, e.g. a company wants our live chat software at Userlike to have a browser-sharing function.


Digging deeper to uncover the real need may well lead to the discovery that another feature will meet the need just as well.

Digging, in this case, tends to lead to the following insights: The customer/company wants browser-sharing so they can see what the web visitor is doing. This will allow them to help them better. That last part is the underlying need.

Once the real need has been identified, we can explain to the customer that our core product does the job they need: allowing them to see which website page the visitor is on. The customer will then be more likely to accept feature Y instead of feature X.

You can't change your customers' needs, but you can change their requirements.

Simply providing a reason why you offer the product the way that you do can also make the recipient more acquiescent.

To go back to the browser-sharing example, we can explain that we don’t offer it for the following reasons: In practice, there are very few end consumers who are comfortable with this feature. It raises concerns regarding data privacy (do they have access to my computer?). What’s more, it has technological limitations (browser-sharing technology would not work on all browsers).

Listen and learn

All too often, companies lead with the solution and not the problem. A customer requests a new feature? No problem, it gets added to the list of desirables without understanding the value it would provide.

By talking to your customer and asking the right questions , you’ll solve the real need and not a superficial one. You’ll also avoid ending up with the equivalent of Homer Simpson’s dream car.

Homer's dream car.