Market Need vs. Customer Need

If you’ve been a business-to-business marketing manager for more than a few months, you have undoubtedly had an experience like this: Sales person walks into your office to tell you about the great meeting he/she just had with a potential customer.  The customer recommended that your company revamp its product or marketing approach because you’re missing the boat on a burning issue the company faces.

After the issue was described to you in great detail, you were supposed to jump out of your seat, tell somebody to stop the presses, start a product or marketing overhaul and have it completed by next week. Instead, you very diplomatically explained why this wasn’t going to happen and offered other solutions.

While I’m all for customer feedback on products and marketing, one company’s input is just that: One customer.  And one customer does not make a market.  Before you make the investment necessary to implement a change suggested by a customer, make sure there is a big enough market with the same or similar need.  Once you do the research, you can determine if this is a market need or an individual customer need.

But just doing the market research can be expensive.  You may want to start small by interviewing the customer to learn more about the issue.  If you determine the issue is compelling, in your company’s scope of capabilities and aligns with the brand, you can hold informal discussions with other customers to see if they are facing the same issue.  These discussions not only begin the process of quantifying the potential market, they give you key points to test in further market research.

Of course, companies that conduct ongoing market research and are open-minded about the results are rarely surprised by a market need.  But sometimes marketers use research to validate the current approach and don’t really listen to what the research is saying.

So what happens if you conduct the research and there just isn’t a big enough market?  For the potential customer with the burning issue you can look at a few alternatives:

Alternative 1. Tailor your product to meet the customer’s need.   You might get agreement to charge the customer for this tailoring or you can absorb the cost if the volume and margins are large enough and there is an opportunity of future sales to select customers.

Alternative 2. See if there is a way to adjust the customer’s use of the product.  Sometimes this has a payoff in increased productivity, improved quality or cost savings for the customer.

Alternative 3. If Alternative 1 or 2 are not workable, suggest products from other vendors to the customer.  I know this is heresy.  But if your product doesn’t meet the customer’s needs, you are not going to get the sale.  Why not create some goodwill by suggesting alternatives that will better meet the customer’s need?

Understanding the difference between a market need and a customer need is critical to a marketing manager’s success.  Identifying an individual customer’s need and determining, through research, that the need applies to a large enough market can lead to new growth for the company.


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