The Covert Questions Your Customers Want Answered

Wish you could read minds? Find out what your customers are thinking—and what they want from you.

The renowned French writer and philosopher Voltaire wrote, "Someone has said that the first soothsayer was the first rascal who encountered a fool." The soothsayer foretold the future and some believed could read people’s minds. Who plays the role of the fool or rascal in this tale remain open to your own interpretation, but there’s not a shred of doubt that your customers expect you to read their minds.

Believe it or not, before the time of texting and tweeting, most customers rarely bothered to complain or express their opinions to the companies with which they did business. In a 1980s study commissioned by the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, 96% of dissatisfied customers said they never directly complained; of course, 90% of them never returned to the offending establishment. In my own customer insight work over the past two decades, I’ve interviewed and surveyed well over 100,000 customers. I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t expect companies to mystically understand their needs and wants. Today it’s like the Divine Right of Kings in reverse. This was the idea that God had transferred all omnipotence to certain worldly rulers without fear of the people. Today, most customers believe they are not subject to your earthly rules and regulations. I call them Customer CEO because they are large and in charge.

This is a confounding time of transition for every kind of company. In recent studies of business, CEOs say they no longer understand their customers. The default position for many is to do nothing and hope that business changes back or somehow becomes easier. Of course, hope is rarely a successful strategy. If you are looking for an easy answer in 140 characters to understand today’s customer, forget about it. It’s like being on a roller coaster. One minute you can see what’s just ahead but then, without warning, the bottom drops out. Customers are competitive, calculating, complicated, confusing, and caustic. They have an absolute sense of entitlement. They don’t always tell the truth. Some have gone too far and become vigilantes, happy to showroom you out of business.

To help you, let me share nine covert questions my own research has unearthed that every customer expects you to answer.

1. What’s in it for me? There has never been a time when customers have been more self-focused. We are living in the age of "it’s not my fault." According to a new study from the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, customers are rarely willing to shoulder the blame if they’ve made a mistake in obtaining or using a product or service. The study showed that 79% of those who perceived it was their fault were likely to shift the blame to someone else. Amazon and Ikea get this.

2. What's this really worth? Every customer applies a set of customized filters to determine what something is really worth. The problem is that you may not know what those filters are. You must discover what they believe about your offerings on a real time basis like Costco does.

3. Does it do the job I need it to do? Products and services must be designed to perform jobs. Truth is, most things that get sold are because someone sees greater utility in it than the alternative, not because it is the most innovative. Ryanair has become the largest airline in Europe with almost no customer service; but it still gets you where you need to go safely.

4. How do you make me feel? Even the most price driven customers have a heart. They love a story. People buy on emotion and justify with "facts" at places like Trader Joe’s and Lululemon every day.

5. Why is this so complicated? Your customers want simple. They don’t have the time or energy to figure it all out so you must strive to streamline every product, service and experience. Think Forrest Gump. That’s how a brand like In-N-Out Burger became the #2 burger chain in the country.

6. Why do you keep telling me no? The Havas Meaningful Brands Report said customers wouldn’t care if nearly three-quarters of brands completely disappeared. This single stat should be a wake up call to any of us who believe we are necessary. Start saying yes like Ritz-Carlton and Nordstrom do.

7. What about my ideas (and complaints)? People want to be heard…now. The Social Habit said 24% of American Internet users who have reached out to a brand online expect a reply within thirty minutes regardless of when contact was made. Do you have an open door to listen? Use today’s platform to engage them, really listen and respond.

8. How do I break the rules? Rules are made to be broken so why not get ahead of the curve and let your customers proactively break them? Be a rebel; it’s worked wonders for Red Bull and Harley-Davidson.

9. Do we share the same values? When a jury in the infamous Apple-Samsung patent case found that Samsung had unfairly competed, Apple CEO Tim Cook sent an e-mail to his employees that said, in part, "For us this lawsuit has always been about something much more important than patents or money. It’s about values. We value originality and innovation and pour our lives into making the best products on earth. And we do this to delight our customers, not for competitors to flagrantly copy." Every company must strive to have and live values that deeply connect to their customers.

These are their primary questions and I believe the answers start what I like to call "customer thinking." That is, you must create a process to fuse big data (the what) with big insight (the why) in order to understand them; you can’t depend on one without the other. When you start customer thinking, you’ll begin to predict the future. Your customers want you to be a soothsayer and if you aren’t, who’s really the fool?

More customer insight awaits in the Fast Company newsletter.

—Chuck Wall is the founder of Customer CEO Consulting and the author of Customer CEO: How to Profit From the Power of Your Customers.

[Image: Flickr user Bob Prosser]

Add New Comment


  • Annette Franz

    Chuck, this is a great post. All excellent questions! I'll call out #1 because oftentimes companies are too busy focusing on WIIFM (for the company) rather than WIIFM (for the customer). Thanks for writing this!

  • Matt Reedy

    Chuck, very insightful, thank you!  Points 4 and 9 remind me of Simon Sinek's TED talk ("How great leaders inspire action") in which he says "people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it."  Customers want to be inspired by our products and services, they want to buy a movement or a cause.  They don't just want to buy our products.  

  • Chuck Wall

    Matt, thanks for your comments.  Simon really gets it and I admire his work very much.   I think you nailed it with the idea that customers want to be inspired.  Customers no longer compartmentalize their feelings from their purchase decisions, while so many companies continue to do so.  And here's an interesting factoid about a movement or cause:  according to the Cone/Echo Global CR Opportunity Study, a staggering 93% say they would buy a product associated with a cause they believe in.  So, we're not talking just beanbag here.  Customers are trying to tell every business "listen and partner with us" and you will profit from it.   

  • Don Ford

    Excellent points.  Love point 7 and 8, as a consumer nothing frustrates me more than connecting with a company via technology and then receiving a canned reply that I will get a response in 48-72 hours.  In todays competitive times you have to be willing to step out and break the rules to distinguish your company.  Thanks for sharing.

  • Chuck Wall

    Don, thanks for taking time to read and comment.  It just seems to go against our grain to proactively help our customer break our rules!  Better yet, get rid of most of them.  We have to ask ourselves why do we erect these barriers to providing enriching customer experiences?  To make life easier for ourselves as business people or improve the life (by solving problems) of our customers? 

  • marie-jeanne juilland

    All strong points. In this day and age of technology and speed overload, more and more companies will reap huge benefits from point 5 above: Why is this so complicated? I'm amazed at how many CEOs never take the time to stop, to ask - or just listen - and then to show that they really do care about their customers by taking action on the answers they've received. Marie-Jeanne 

  • Tom Cuthbert

    Excellent article.  As a consumer, I understand the disconnect you point out.  So many companies seem clueless about their customers feelings and concerns.  And yet, as a CEO coach, I hear my members talk all the time about customers!  "Why are they leaving?  I don't get them!"

    Your insights are right on.  I hope this can become a wake up call for businesses of all sizes. The customer drives the boat, better start paying attention.  Thanks for you for this post, well done.

  • Chuck Wall

    Thanks Tom.  I feel your pain!  That "why are they leaving?" question is universal today because customers have so many choices.  Customers are fully empowered to wreak havoc on business as usual; and they will.  Your coaching clients are hopefully tuned in to this new reality and will start to be proactive in answering these questions before their customers ask them.  Good luck.  

  • Simon Mainwaring

    Great post and I think Point 9 is especially important. The values lay at the heart of almost every aspect of a company and ultimately, it's what connects customers to a brand. so when those are threatened a brand must react and when those are absent, a customer must react. The value of values cannot be overstated. Thanks for the ideas. Simon

  • Chuck Wall

    Simon, thanks.  Point 9 is what I like to refer to as the Power of Purpose.  We are seeing time and again that customers want to do business with brands that share their values.  Last Christmas, for example, we saw the radical example of Patagonia's "Don't Buy This Jacket" un-marketing campaign.  It was a very clever way to promote their Common Threads Initiative while being a great corporate citizen.  Edelman's annual Good Purpose study shows that this is much more than just the latest fad.  Completely agree that the value of values is priceless.  

  • Jason S Smith

    Great points.  I work in a role where we are trying to understand and serve our "retail" customer and many of these hit very close to home.  These are good things for the legacy company to chew on before they become obsolete. 

  • Chuck Wall

    Jason, thanks for your comment.  Legacy companies, particularly successful ones, come from a "don't fix what's not broken" mindset.  They often assume their customers are fully engaged and satisfied because they keep on buying...for a while.  But,there is always some disruptive upstart, out there somewhere plotting on how to steal them away.  The best way to do it to launch a proactive listening tour to find the soft spots of the incumbent (slow response, arrogant attitude, unbending rules) then pounce.  Eventually it always shows up with eroding market share and a downward spiral.  Isn't the best course to preempt the upstarts by doing it yourself first?