How To Talk To Your Customers (Despite Henry Ford and Steve Jobs)

“If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”
– Henry Ford (supposedly)

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Steve Jobs, BusinessWeek, May 25 1998

These oft-quoted quips have managed to stir up a lot of confusion about whether or not we should talk to customers about our products. Most experienced product teams still value customer research, as they should. But for those new to the field, these quotes can be misleading. Even for those who do know that customer research still has merit, it’s hard to know how to do it in a way that actually delivers tangible value. Here are some things to keep in mind.

First, I want to get this out of the way, despite these quotes,

Yes, you should talk to your customers. Every single day.

I really do mean that. Every single day. I know that our days are full. Our lives are busy. I’ve been there. I spent more than two years doing several jobs trying to keep a struggling startup alive. I still talked to our customers every single day. Here’s why. Each day that goes by without talking to your customer is a day that you get further away from building the right thing.

You can’t just do customer research every once in awhile. It’s not a quarterly or even monthly activity. It’s something that you have to build in to every day. It doesn’t have to be a big research project. As a startup CEO, the first thing I did every day was make sure that I had a customer call scheduled for that day. If I didn’t, I picked up the phone and called someone. We also had several users come in each week for ad-hoc usability testing. Out in the world, if I ran across someone who used our product, I used that opportunity to gain a little knowledge. It doesn’t have to be formal, it just has to be always.

The goal is to learn who you are building for, not what to build.

The biggest mistake I see people make is when they do get out and talk to customers, they ask them what they should build. They ask for feature requests. Please don’t do this. You are wasting everyone’s time. What I’m going to say next is going to sound a lot like the above quotes, but there’s an important subtlety here. People have no idea what they want. They don’t know what they would do. They have no idea if they would use a hypothetical product or not. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to them.

Talk to them about their problems. Ask them about their day. Observe them. Try to identify whether or not they even have the problem your product is trying to solve. If they do, ask them about that problem. How do they solve it today? Are they satisfied with that solution? How often does the problem occur? Is it a big painful problem? Do other people in their organization have that problem? In what context does the problem occur? It bears repeating: Your goal is to learn about for whom you are building not what you should build.

Don’t ask leading questions.

What’s a leading question? What’s the difference between me asking, “What flavor do you want – strawberry? vanilla? chocolate?” and “What flavor do you want?” It’s a silly example. But a really important distinction. The first puts ideas in your head, it influences your answer. It might even limit what you think is in the realm of possibility. The second allows you to come up with the answer all by yourself.

Let’s look at a more realistic example. Suppose I ask a customer, “Do you have concerns about budget or usage?” Of course, I want to know if the customer does have concerns about budget or usage, but by asking it this way, I’ve done two things. First, if the customer didn’t have concerns about budget or usage, they might now. They are probably thinking to themselves, “should I have concerns about budget or usage?” And more importantly, if they do have other concerns, they might now be overshadowed by these two new concerns that didn’t even exist beforehand, meaning you might never discover them and be given the opportunity to address them.

Listen more than you talk.

Discover these concerns by talking less. Simply ask, “Do you have any concerns?”. Then stop talking. Let your customer respond. Remember, the goal is to learn about your customer, not sell your product. Although, even if you were trying to sell your product, listening more than talking is going to help just as much. Play a game with yourself. See how few words you can say to keep the conversation going.

Ask why or “Tell me more about that”.

You can talk less by relying on my two favorites. Ask why. Or if you don’t want to sound like an obnoxious five-year old, simply say, “Tell me more about that”. Keep score. How often was the response something completely unexpected. It will happen a lot. You’ll uncover countless things that you wouldn’t have otherwise learned if you instead asked a leading questions based on a wrong assumption.

You will hear solutions. Bring it back to problems.

Your customers are inevitably going to talk about solutions. They are going to ask for feature requests. That’s ok. That’s how our brains work. But gently bring them back to the problem. Some good ways to do this include asking, “How would you use that?” or “Tell me about when and why you would use that”. Feature requests are clues to a problem that you haven’t uncovered yet. Dig for the problem. It will be worth it.

To Sum Up

Ford (supposedly) and Jobs weren’t wrong. You can waste a lot of time asking customers the wrong things. But don’t mistake that for never talking to your customers. In fact, if you want to make sure you never fall into the trap of not knowing what you don’t know, do talk to your customers. Just keep the following in mind:

  • Talk to your customers every day.
  • Learn about who you are building for, not what to build.
  • Don’t ask leading questions.
  • Listen more than you talk
  • Ask Why and “Tell me more about that”.
  • You will hear solutions, bring it back to the problem.

Do you have other tips or tricks for uncovering great customer insights? Please share in the comments below.


  1. avatar says

    Hi Teresa,

    Overall, great article. You highlighted a number of key points that bear refreshing; particularly because they’re subtle.

    “The goal is to learn who you are building for, not what to build.”

    This tag line caught my interest in particular. Much of my product involvement over the years was unduly oriented toward solving end user feature requests and needs. That sort of thing gets you your .1, .2, .3 incremental releases. It doesn’t get you the next ‘big R’ though.

    Sean Geehan wrote about it in his new book recently. I reviewed it, “What I’ve Read Lately: The B2B Executive Playbook” ( The book’s definitely worth a read…particularly for B2B…but to a lesser degree B2C as well. A strong theme throughout is paying attention to, engaging with the people whose problems you’re looking to solve.


      • avatar says

        Teresa – I hope you get a chance to read my book, The B2B Executive Playbook…I use the Ford and Jobs quotes all the time…Which absolutely is NOT a formula for success in the B2B world.

        Would love to hear your thoughts on my book!

  2. avatarJivendu says

    Teresa – you have articulated it very nicely. I had couple of experiences where the users had no clue as to what could actually help them ‘Faster horse’ syndrom. So asking questions on what should be built for them was useless.
    I did the exact thing as mentioned by you – knowing the user ‘what they do, how they do, what are the bottllenecks, their daily set of activities, anomaly situations etc’
    Following which we proposed. Now, after we proposed, then they started thinking and the iterations followed…..

    • avatarttorres says

      Exactly, Jivendu! Users are great at suggesting incremental improvements. But even so it helps to really understand what their problem is. Often times, an incremental improvement can be the insight for your next big iteration. Guy Kawasaki has a great phrase for this, “jumping the curve”. Your users / customers can help you move up the curve, but they aren’t going to tell you how to jump to the next curve. You have to deduce that from you what you observe / learn.

  3. avatarBob says

    I appreciate the great insights in this article. My SaaS product is directed towards consumers; however, the buyer is a business. As a result, I am often asked by customers to introduce features that they have determined will solve a problem for the consumer. When you don’t have a direct connection to the consumer it is difficult to take some client suggestions seriously. I’ve been fighting this battle for 10 years. At first it was easy to just do what the client said. Now I work much harder to be ahead of the game – talking to consumers and trying to uncover the problems before being told about them by clients.

    • avatarttorres says

      Hi Bob,

      You are spot on. It can be difficult when your customer is different from your end-user. In that case, you have to be really clear about what your customer needs to buy the product and what your end-user needs to use the product. It helps if you can develop relationships with both.

      I’ve been in your situation many times and I know it isn’t easy. I wish you the best of luck!

  4. avatarRay Miller says

    I have found that “Listen more than you talk.” is key in order to obtain the desired input. It is difficult to hear a customer discuss the shortcomings of an existing product. Rather than defend the product, this is the time to listen and gather more information on ways the product is being used and what the users expectations are.

    I have also found it useful to ask a customer to “dream a little”. What would the ideal situation be if there were no constraints. This can overcome the limitation of focus group customers not knowing what they want.

  5. avatarttorres says

    Ray, i like “dream a little” a lot. I find that sometimes it can take a few minutes for a customer to get into this mode, but when they do, you really learn a lot.

  6. avatar says

    This is a very good post on a very important aspect of the business of product and services. In my experience there is a need of a balance among three factors:

    1. Current Customers (the silent ones especially, as the usual noisy ones are there anyway)
    2. Potential Customers (the one that you don’t have yet and may not be aware of you or the problem you may solve for them)
    3. Gut, Genius, Intuition, superpowers

    1. Listening to current customers is good ( but it may also be extremely dangerous. They may actually doom your product ( Especially if the company culture (or some hole in the organization) enables raw customer requests to become automatically product requirements (this is SO bad)

    2. Listening to potential customers is harder (you have to discover them and interview them. Effective interviewing is not an easy skill to find). But if you do it right, and are even able to build buyer personas, then you have made the most important think as a marketer (

    3. Then, if you nail down (1) and (2), all the others mentioned at point (3) may not be needed, but if you have one of them, well that can make the difference (unless you only base your product/strategy decisions based on (3) like many do with poor results – in fact there are not many Steve Job’s around I’d say.


  7. avatarttorres says


    Love your comment. It is a fine balance between those three, particularly 1 and 2. It can be so easy to want to just focus on future customers at the cost of current customers or even focus too much on current customers at the cost of growth.


    • avatarLiat says

      Great post Teresa! I am doing my first steps as a product manager and wonder whether you have more than one user persona within your customers and if you use it in order that your solution/service to the customer’s problem will eventually become a deal/increase your service.


  8. avatarLiat says

    Teresa, I really enjoyed your post. I am a new in the PM area but wonder whether you use the buyer persona in your discussion with customers?
    I believe that even if you have a great solution to the customer’s problem you need him to buy your solution/service eventually.

  9. avatarttorres says

    Hi Liat,

    Welcome to the world of product. It really is a lot of fun. I’m not sure I understand your question(s). I do, often, use user personas. However, I use them primarily to communicate the customer’s needs to other people on my team not in communication with the customer.

    Or perhaps you are asking if I ask the customer about buying the product? If that’s the case, I am careful to not mix discovery with selling. I would describe discovery as learning about the customer. it can be the first step along the way to a sale, but you want to be careful to not mix these up. If you want to get genuine information from your customer, they need to trust that you aren’t just there to sell to them.

    If neither of those answered your question, I apologize. Please try to clarify and I’ll do my best to answer.

  10. avatarLiat says

    Hi Teresa, I guess I mixed few things here :-)..I know that buyer persona is usally used when you want to win a deal..but if I understand you correctly, then you talked about being in-touch based with your potenial customers on regular basis and build relationship,so when it comes to the sale/competition then the customer will want to use yours/your company products/services, am I correct? if yes, then you answered my question. Thanks a lot.

  11. avatarttorres says

    HI Liat,

    Thanks for the clarification. In this post, I talk about talking to customers regularly, not with the goal of making the sale, but with the goal of learning about who your customers are. This will help you build a product or service that your customers actually want, which down the road should make the sale easier. But I’m not specifically talking about the sales process here, but instead the focus is on how to learn what you need to know in order to build a better product.

    I hope that helps.


  12. avatarJustin says

    Great article. I highly recommend the book “Customer Visits: Building a Better Market Focus” by Mcquarrie. A very practical book on how to do customer visits and it puts context on what to do with the information you get.


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