Most manufacturers know what their clients do with their products. After all if you’re a tool maker you know your clients use your tools to achieve certain things, it’s obvious.

Screwdriver manufacturers know their clients use screwdrivers to screw in screws. Hammer makers products are used to whack things with, like crinkle cut nails. It’s obvious.

Except it’s not that obvious

Many manufacturers are so sure that their product is used for a certain purpose that they don’t speak to their clients, widely and often enough, to ascertain what the real use is. As a result they do things like make an improved screwdriver, a phillips head type for example. These cross tipped screwdrivers are obviously far superior, they grip the screw, give more leverage, and are quicker to screw in and out. What’s not to like about that?

But what if the client isn’t using the screwdriver to screw in screws, but to open tins of paint? How’s the phillips head screwdriver going to work out doing that? Before you go and experiment for yourself, let me just tell you now, it’s not very good.....

The other problem with deciding, in advance, how clients use your product is that clients might not like screws, and may decide they’d prefer to use glue, or allen keys to assemble their furniture or have decided to build all their furniture out of Lego. What then?

Asking clients, and not just the noisiest or biggest, and getting useful feedback is vital if your business is to build things clients want to buy rather than what your engineers think is cool.

Who can ask and who can’t?


Getting the sales team to bring market knowledge to the company is generally a very bad idea. There’s nothing wrong with salespeople, some of my best friends are salespeople, BUT, their job, and passion needs to be about selling the benefits of the present solution. Filling their minds with questions and doubt is not good for them.

The problem with salespeople is that they can’t help themselves but to try and solve the client’s problem, if they can’t solve it, at least downplay its significance. There’s a word for it, a whole discipline in sales. Objection handling. The better they are at their jobs the worse they’ll be at simply witnessing client issues.


Marketing organizations are great at awareness, generating leads and building a great business process around the sales machine. What few are are subject matter experts on the technology and market. As a result they have less credibility when talking to clients about their pain points.

To be heard you have to be believed

Often an outsider is the answer. They can listen to clients without feeling required to defend or solve clients issues. They can bring market credibility, and therefore a sense of openness to the client conversation, and they can report back to the supplier without getting into the blame game, or having to worry about sacred cows being hurt in the process.

Sometimes the truth hurts, and companies will shy away from facing it. An independent can give them the good, the bad and the ugly without fear or favor.

What to ask?

So once you’ve picked your independent, knowledgeable and fearless partner, then what?

There is plenty for them to do, but start with these three questions:

  1. What do you love?
  2. What do you hate?
  3. What would you change?

The client can have only one answer to each question. Pick one.

That would be step one to finding out if your next product should be an electric screwdriver, or a longer flat headed one.

User groups

Many companies shun user groups, partly because they see them as an opportunity for big powerful clients to gang up on them, partly because they can be nests of discontent and partly because inviting 1000 people to a meeting, once a year, in Vegas is a nightmare.

Companies are rightly turning away from this monolithic events, to small local group meetings. These events have 12 clients or less, and concentrate on empowering clients to talk about their experiences and ideas. These are a goldmine of information for manufacturers and have the added benefit of letting other clients learn more about who best to implement the technologies. 

The added advantage is the ability for your biggest fans to infect other clients with their passion for your solution. There is no more powerful a salesperson than an enthusiastic client.

And if five of the twelve clients talk about how to get the paint off the screwdriver then you might want to delay the introduction of the electric version.

About the Author: Simon Dudley

Simon is a contrarian. He makes a habit of being the guy who questions the orthodoxy, the guy who doesn’t believe it just because the good and the great said it’s true. This has not always been good for his ascent up the corporate greasy pole. However it’s been very good for his employers if they are prepared to listen.

The Book The End of Certainty "How to thrive when playing by the rules is a losing strategy" explains why groupthink and the doing what you’ve always done is no longer the right move.

The Excession Events Podcast is available on iTunes and Google Play

He is also a business speaker specialising in the transformation of business models.

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