How to Identify Customer Needs and Expectations

One day consumers listen to their guts, the other to facts, then a mix of both. They read honest reviews and fake ones. They first want this, then they want that, while what’s actually useful for them might be something totally different.

Making sense of all that static and identifying the customer's true needs and expectations is a tricky task. This post is intended to clear things up for you.

Needs ≠ Wants ≠ Expectations

Two guys walk into your corner shop and you overhear one of them speaking to the other: “God, I’m hungry! I’m gonna get a Mars.” Clearly, that customer has a need, to fill the void in his belly. But he also has a conflicting want, his craving for the chocolate bar.

You know that the sugary stick isn’t the best choice to fight hunger. He would need a wholemeal sandwich. But it will be presumptuous, perhaps even patronizing, to tell him that his own solution is not a good one. Who’s to say that Mars doesn’t grant him bigger satisfaction?

Wants and needs are not the same thing. This can induce quite some confusion on the business’ side about the best practice in such situations. These are two motivations for the customer, and differentiation is essential.

A definition for a need suggested by Jorge Baba from Game-Changer is "something that solves an actual or imaginary problem."

A want is simply something that we’d like to have for whatever rational or irrational reason.

Expectations are the anticipated circumstances of a purchase. They include all steps of the customer journey, all interactions with the company, as well as the effects of the purchase and experience, the practical benefits, and the emotions. Customers rate a company’s performance by its ability to meet their expectations.

What the customer wants is often more of a powerful motivator than what they need. This becomes clear when you listen to your customer and ask them to tell you why they want what they want. Usually they have a burning desire to get what they want and simply want you to show them how they can get it.

Jorge Baba, Game-Changer

Needs, wants, and expectations are the key motivations that drive the customer, and for that matter, any person.

1
Gain insights from conversations

Service conversations are also an investigation of the customer’s needs and expectations.

Your support department is the destination for customers who have trouble finding the product they want, don’t know what product they need/want, or don’t fancy searching for it.

Listen, ask, differentiate. To uncover customer motivations, your first step is to listen closely. Doing so, it comes down to differentiating and asking the right questions.

This matters so much because many customers won’t differentiate themselves. One may say “I need a new laptop”, another “I want a new laptop”. To you, this might indicate using a different approach for each of them. To them, it might just be semantics. It’s through the questions that follow that you learn what they actually mean.

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Master of puppets

Many customers know what they want or need, but have trouble expressing themselves. This can be because they’re not skilled in expressing their thoughts, or because they are lost in the terminology of your products or service. In the latter case, consider removing barriers in both areas by implementing a more human language.

An unrecognized killer of a positive customer experience? Speaking in industry jargon to your customers rather than using straightforward, simple language.

Micah Solomon, Forbes

Not all customers are clear about what they want or need, to themselves or to service reps. You simply require more information to know what’s best for them. These questions will help:

“What would you like the product to do for you?”
An approach that points at the actual benefit the customer is after. It’s meant to filter the possible options of products based on features that grant this benefit. If the customer does not need but wants a product (remember the distinction), the benefit of the product is rather abstract and not practical – like its recentness, its design or its trendiness.

“What is the issue you want to solve?”
Similar question but through its indirect approach the focus initially lies on the problem the customer has. It works particularly well when customers have only a vague idea of what they need, but are aware of what’s going wrong. The ability to fix the issue is the product’s benefit, and this is what the customer is actually looking for.

“How much are you willing to spend?”
Money matters to nearly every customer. But it can be hard for them to recognize good or bad price for value in a certain product area. For example in software that’s offered via subscription, the prices can vary while the value of its features is hard to number. Be ready to follow up with comparison pages and pricing itemization.

Tony Allesandra shared on HubSpot a list of 23 questions to ask your customer that will help you and them uncover what they want and need. They work both in direct customer contact and feedback surveys, they’re tailored to a B2B context.

2
Categorize feedback

It makes sense to look at the whole group of your customers for feedback. It helps you identify patterns and make assumptions about the likelihood that they’ll behave or approach you in a certain way.

Although this is a continuous process, think of it as a step preceding the actual customer conversation. It gives you an idea about where to start in direct contact with your ‘average’ customer.

Gregory Ciotti from Help Scout listed 7 great categorizable ways to gather customer feedback:

  • Email and customer contact forms
  • Customer feedback surveys
  • Usability tests
  • Exploratory customer interviews (this one overlaps with my earlier take on direct customer contact)
  • Social listening (with polls on social media)
  • On-site activity
  • Comment boxes

These feedback channels are most likely filled out by your customers in written and spoken language. The evaluation of such feedback is prone to subjective bias. To draw reliable conclusions, the input needs to be collected and categorized.

Ciotti suggests apps like Campfire and Trello to make the organization of feedback a full-team-project. Pouring the data from various sources into a collective tool enables everyone in your team to get the full picture of opinions from your customer base. And eventually, about these people’s needs and expectations.

3
Gain insights from customer metrics

You know you’ve done something right if you kept a customer active and made him return over a certain stretch of time. Therefore, metrics that describe retention, loyalty and satisfaction also inform you if you’ve met your customers’ needs and expectations.

It’s easier to get higher quantities of these metrics and, unlike with qualitative customer feedback, you gather numbers that speak for themselves. You can follow up on tendencies found through them and be sure they’re backed up by strong figures.

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In a previous post, we collected and explained methods to measure customer satisfaction. These are the ones that hand you concrete digits right away:

  • Customer satisfaction score
  • Net promoter score
  • Customer effort score
  • Things Gone Wrong score
  • Social media monitoring with tracking tools (I’ll get to that in more detail further down in this post)

We also wrote a post about customer retention metrics:

  • Customer retention rate
  • Customer lifetime value
  • Repeat purchase rate
  • Redemption rate

Another of our posts dealt with the measurement of customer loyalty:

  • Repurchase ratio
  • Upselling ratio
  • Customer loyalty index
  • Customer engagement numbers

4
Gain insights from the community

One great thing about social media is the freedom people feel to speak out. They might dramatize and glorify singular experiences with a company to be heard by a bigger audience or out of pure excitement. It’s their own motivation to talk about what drives them. Which also means that if they do, it’s relevant for them – and you.

Screenshot of a Tweet by an angry comcast customer
A Comcast customer doesn't hold back on Twitter when he can't watch his favorite series.

Facebook and Twitter are rather obvious platforms to track, but also Quora, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Reddit etc. are worth observing, depending on the industry you’re in.

Here are some helpful tools to monitor and evaluate what’s of concern for you on social media :

Google Alerts. This Google service notifies you when your brand appears in a prominent position.

Mention. A powerful freemium tool that gives you a heads up whenever your brand is mentioned on the web. It’s especially handy for social media tracking, for which Google Alerts is not suitable.

Socialmention . A free tool that analyzes social mentions of your brand on the web. Among others, it shows the likeness of your brand being discussed on the web, the ratio of positive to negative mentions, the likelihood of people mentioning your brand repeatedly, and the range of influence.

Also, consider setting up a feature request page on which users can upvote threads and requests. It provides you with opinions and concrete wishes from people who act in their own interest, but they often know your product quite well.

Feature request management systems like Receptive help in drawing the right conclusions.


If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.

Henry Ford

Ford’s quote tells us a lot about innovation, but also about customer needs and expectations. Sometimes the customer doesn’t have the necessary information or mindset to ask for the best product available. But even then, there still is a want that is to be respected and considered.

Image of a car from 1902
Doesn't it look like a horse carriage? A 1902 Trevethan, one of the first cars to be built in the US.

Ford evidently took the bold road, replacing horse with horsepower, but also paid tribute to his customers’ wish for approval and consent. He understood that they may as well need to be reassured that what they want is the right choice. Eventually, the first cars looked a lot like horse carriages.

With a mix of flexibility, respect, expertise, and the right data, you’ll find out what makes your customers happy in the long run or during a brief encounter.