Let’s find out what the customer wants – and then forget about it!

The customer is always right! This golden gospel is very dear to marketers and is often quoted, used and even abused. The natural corollary to this statement is – if the customer is always right – then – we should listen to the customer and give her what she wants (as she is right and knows correctly what she wants). This gives rise to the whole industry of customer research where we, as marketers, want to know what customers want (and deliver it to them).

Halt! Here the clear chain of logic (and subsequent action) starts to break down in two diverse ways:

First, the Nordic School of Marketing (1) (of which I am a proud and slightly fanatic follower) emphasizes that marketers cannot ‘deliver’ what the customer wants (a.k.a. customer value). Instead, marketers (or service providers) can only facilitate processes and create optimum conditions so that customers can create value for themselves (with marketers as co-creators).

To give an example – and borrowing the holiday cheer (this blog is written just before Christmas) – marketers cannot deliver the smile on the face of your grandmother when she tastes your home-cooked porkkanalaatikko. She is smiling because she is happy to see that you are preserving the family traditions. For our international readers, this dish (called carrot casserole in English) is one of the traditional favorites on the Finnish Christmas table. Instead, what marketers can do is to make you available the ingredients easily and affordably and entice you with their advertising to make the dish. The magic touch (love, of course) is still your own!

porkkanalaatikko.pngThe second way in which we don’t follow the logic – “lets find out what customers want and then deliver it to them” – is that we fail to even facilitate the processes by which customers can get what they want. In heavy jargon, we as marketers fail to facilitate value creation for customers. There can be several reasons for this, however, one of the most common reasons is that marketers find it very difficult to change their way of working. We spend thousands of euros in collecting and interpreting consumer insights. Companies have huge budgets for knowing what consumers want, but in the end, they just try to push ‘easy wins’ which do not require big shake ups. The result is, minor tweaks and perhaps clever marketing communications, but no major changes in how companies approach and facilitate value creation for customers.

The above criticism is beautifully captured in one of the viewpoints within the Nordic School of Marketing called the ‘Customer-Dominant Logic’(2). According to this viewpoint, the focus should be on the everyday life of the customer. In the customers’ lifeworld any company gets only a slice of customer attention and the challenge is to make that slice of life enjoyable for the customer both directly and indirectly (3). However, as mentioned above, the inertia within companies (largely due to financial and corporate structure reasons) makes it very difficult to approach customers from the ‘slice of life’ viewpoint. For companies, they should be the one and only true love for any customer!

The fallout for the narrow approach used by companies is funnily illustrated by the cartoon below. Nearly all of us would have faced this situation. For the company (software developer), doing the update is essential as it helps them but for the customer it is an unnecessary nuisance!


To sum up, it is highly important for marketers to know what customers want. But it is even more important to utilize the insights within the company to develop processes that help customers in getting what they want! This implies, that ‘business as usual’ should not be (read: must not be) the next step to collecting customer insights. Instead, the insights should be used not only for ‘easy wins’ but also more difficult shake-ups. These involve changing the internal mindset, return on investment logic, and a push within product/category management towards a more customer-centric view. Finally, the biggest change is required in internal culture that is more welcoming towards difficult answers. This means appreciating that the purpose of finding out what customers want is not to re-confirm ‘what we already know’, but rather to get a glimpse of the customer lifeworld.

So, let us not burn euros in knowing what customers want, and then forgetting it when doing business development both internally and externally.

Apramey Dube

Doctoral Student


1 Gummerus, J. & von Koskull, C. (eds), The Nordic School: Service Marketing and Management for the Future, Hanken School of Economics: Helsinki

2 Heinonen, K. and Strandvik, T. (2015), “Customer-dominant logic: foundations and implications”, Journal of Services Marketing, Vol. 29 No. 6/7, pp. 472-484

3 Dube, A. and Helkkula, A. (2015), “Service experiences beyond the direct use: indirect customer use experiences of smartphone apps”, Journal of Service Management, Vol. 26 No. 2, pp. 224- 248

Images: www.cookingfromheart.com, www.cartoonstock.com