How to deal with the customer who does not know what he wants

I have had different customers — those, who know, what they want and those, who did not. The ratio was about 1 to 5 but still, how to deal with the client, who does not know what he wants so that you cannot even reach the “discovery stage” — I am not even talking about business analysis issues itself.

The presentation, which was made in Lviv on the BA club, can be viewed here.

Business analyst role is regarded as mediator between customer and development team. If you are using SCRUM (lucky you are, is it “pure” by the way?) then you are Product Owner too, who needs to present customer interests from one side and protect team from inadequate people, from the other. So sometimes it seems that client wants you to build the product which will be a “horse, but with horns, which could be milked with the inbound audio-player, which the customer will not use to ride ”. This is where your consulting role starts.

Our cusomer looks like… awesome Brian Chesky.

Before I start to talk about different BA techniques — I would tell you a bit about our customer. Our small company works with startupers, people, who are Subject Matter Experts and want to start their businesses or expand market opportunities with the help of IT product. We do not work with investment banks, big communication providers to optimize their business processes. It is bad from one side, but awesome from the other. The point is that startupers and business owners with the SME “feature” want to develop the product from scratch and they usually expect you to be an SME from your company`s side. Our customer wants to be like Brian Chesky or Mark Zukerberg who wants to build next Facebook or Aibnb. But sometimes they want to build the Facebook for 3 month, or Facebook for everyone, o “something-looking-like-Facebook” etc. Some of these clients, usually who are not SMEs, do not know what they want in terms of the business model, target audience, etc. And you are the business analyst. After knowing who the customer is, you need to see which is the problem, because it is discovery stage, baby, and you know — you cannot move without knowing where is the problem.

So, the story is about techniques which will help you as a clever, awesome and challenging BA to help the cutomer to understand his needs. Let`s start!

Dr. House always started his work with the ‘problem diagnosis” — why should not you? Thoug, he did not talk to his patients, but you need to as this is the way to see the customer`s pain.

I regard BA here as a person, who shall listen a lot, especially on the discovery stage. Listen to the customer and the result is to see his “pain”.

You see, people do develop IT products for different reasons: some people want to quit their job and start being entrepreneurs (its their “internal” aspiration) which means that they do not know yet which area they would start — they have only rough idea where to go which may change, some of people have very strict “awesome idea” which was not tested somehow by market — they do not tell about the idea to anyone because are afraid that this will be stolen (which is a bit weird to me because the same ideas almost always come to several peoples in the world) — so no one could give feedback and this is you who will do this job, some people have found investor who they promised to show the product till the X-day, and they are searching for a team for MVP development but still they do not know particularly what they want. All the described cases have one thing in common — customer usually does not know what he wants — who is the target audience, which is the prioritisation for features, which is the time line etc. But, knowing the customer`s “pain” — the thing he thinks of when choosing the ream for product development, will help you to move on and that is how…

SMART = Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Bound

Love this technique for the aims and goals description as it is the framework which makes your and customer`s “dream” more precise. So, the main goal here is to form very Specific task for the product (usually the problem that it will solve, or benefits, but which describes the meaning of the product. Then there shall be high-level (if we are on discovery stage) Measures like product quantification (for example — 600 users load per day). Then the goal shall be formed from the real efforts and situation — it shall be Attainable. You need to make an audit of your capabilities, about the environment etc, to see whether you could achieve the project result within the given time-frame. Relevance is my fave here. There is a question — WHY? Why people need this product? Why it should be developed? If a client and you answer this question fairly, you will tackle the problem.

The last dimension here is Time. Really, who needs the niche product which could be developed in 3–5–10 years? The technology and industry context changes — so we need to move quickly. So, this is the deadline which makes you move further and quicker.

Doing SMART in the global product scale is not easy, but it is far easier than next techniques)

You are nothing without market research. We do products for people. People form the market. Know your market.

Do your job — do not underestimate your competitors — they could show you a lot of lessons and best practises. In my work experience I somehow ommitted some competitors and regret because they have had really good ideas to implement in the product which I could propose the customer.

Make a benchmark — I rather see it as a “mix” of best practices from different companies — not only in your industry. Do not forget about other companies which may correspond and be the best in the “features” of your product — use analogies.

So, here are the main practices which I use for market research:

  • industry analysis (discovering trends, main competitors, best practices) — to decide on the product niche;
  • PEST analysis — rather to see all potential stakeholders and risks for the product;
  • five forces analysis by Porter to see the “market picture” more precisely;
  • SWOT analysis — it is rather modified when the customer does not have business or not and SME here, but make it for yourself to see what are the team`s Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. I would rather ask questions on the customer`s capability to develop the product and see how he could help you when developing it.
  • Customer analysis — make a questionnaire, go to forums where your customer lives, use — everything is possible and cheap with Internet. See what the user wants.

The result is not a marketing plan (you are not a CMO here, are you?), but the big picture of the industry with the meaningful details which help to achieve the product success in the future. Btw, this is the job, which, if you make it with the high quality, will help you to make decisions in the future.

If to make an analogy with school — marketing research is your homework, questions and answers with customer — your lessons, and the Release is your exam. The exam will show you how you did your homework.

So, you did marketing research, you are almost SME in the business and you have the basis for the next product discussions. Propose alternatives to your customer. You know different target audiences, you see the product geography, features etc. so you are ready to make Business Cases for your customer where you will propose different options while comparing them. In this case, when you see what to compare — you could move on with the decision such as TA and others.

Who does not know this awesome man? He did all the tricks in the films on his own. He said to know lots of techniquest which made him professional actor. Why should not you?

As a mature Business Analyst you will expand your portfolio of techniques to work with customer more effective, but now I want to share with you two of my faves: Business Canvas and Value Proposition Canvas. These are the patterns which are used in the start-up world and not only, because they are very effective, when you want to understand your business in the smallest details and that is why (I will not start on the techniques very detailed, but share links where you could read more).

Business canvas for Facebook, from

With this instrument you could conquer the world! The niche! The customer! Sorry, it is a joke. It is effective instrument to see the product from the inside.

So business canvas gives you an understanding of your product Customer, of the Relations you want to build with them, the Channels to approach the Customer. Value Proposition for this particular Customer. Key Activities, Resources and Partners — it is rather the “inner kitchen” of the product which helps you to see how you will realize the product.

Cost structure makes you and your Client to analyze how the money will be spent on product operation in the future and now. And Revenue Streams is my fave cell — it shows you where the product could generate the Revenue. I think it is better to analyze all the possible revenue streams for your product even if they cannot be realized yet. But to see the picture where you could go in the future.

Value Proposition Canvas is another smart tool which helps you to understand the customer more as each customer, which will interact with your product has such “problem” dimensions as:

On the Customer side:

  • fears: these are the customer`s jobs he should do with your product (login, connect payment card etc.);
  • needs: these are the customer`s pains, which he enters into the product and hopes to solve. For LinkedIn is could be — a lot of candidates in different places for Head Hunters;
  • wants: these are the gains the customer hopes to achieve while using your product. For LinkedIn, for example, it could be quality Job search/Mentor search for professionals, for Head hunters — a pool of candidates in one place etc. Here are the reasons the user will use your product.

Some companies do the “Value proposition for customer side” job so good, that they manage to create strong brands which customer love so that customer do not feel even gains. To know more — read the “Lovemarks” and “Loveworks” by Saatchi&Saatchi`s directors.

From Product side:

  • product services = product features: here is the pool for must have, nice-to have and mandatory. These product services is the mix of those features which makes the product useful to the user and makes him want to use.
  • experience=pain killers: those problem-solvers which make to use your product — not the competitors. I think that here lies the unique competitive advantage.
  • benefits — here lie the benefits which the customer gain using your product.

Remember — you are not just a Business Analyst. You are consultant which works with Customer to solve his pain and problem. A lot depends on your work. Good luck!

To read:

  • Software Requirement, Karl Wiegers
  • Business models generation, Alexander Osterwalder

To watch:

Passionate about IT and startups. Books lover. Made in Ukraine.

Passionate about IT and startups. Books lover. Made in Ukraine.