Want To Innovate? Stop Focusing On Customer Problems

By Anand Tamboli


Okay, let us start with the basic and yet core question: What is a problem? Sounds trivial, but it is more than a trick question. A quick Google search might tell you that a problem is “a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.”

So, let us take an example to dig down further. Let us talk about Jimmy, our customer. Jimmy is an art lover and recently purchased artwork in an auction last week. Now he wants to install it on the wall of his living room. But Jimmy does not have all the necessary tools to do that. He does not have a hammer, nails, or drill-machine, etc. In this scenario, Jimmy wanting to install an artwork in his living room is not a problem. His inability to do that due to lack of resources and tools, on the other hand, can be construed as a problem.

Now, if you were to sell him a solution to his problem, it is likely that you will offer him a good hammer or a drill machine, or you may try to sell him a handyman service. The point is, if you know what customers’ problems are, you can sell them your products or services. That is what knowing the customer’s problem does – it enables you to sell them what you already have. And there are several well-established and proven ways to find more about customer problems.

But innovation is less about selling and more about solving. And that is why the approach described above is poorly suited for innovation. When you are innovating, you do not want to be blinded by customer’s problems. You want something better and bigger that can give you solid leverage to innovate better and use that innovation to get to or maintain your market-leading position.

Innovation is less about selling and more about solving.

What if you go a few steps further, conduct a deep survey, or ask questions differently? You will highly likely uncover root causes and true intent or motive of doing something in the first place. In Jimmy’s case, instead of asking, “What are you lacking or struggling with?” you may want to ask, “What are you trying to do? And why?”

In most cases, customers cannot specify the solution they want. It is unlikely that you will get exact or near-exact specifications of what they need. But one thing customers can do effectively is to tell you what they are trying to do and why. And when you know that you are in a better position to help them. You may know or find a better way for them of doing that thing.