Expert advice

By many measures, Apple is the most successful company in the history of the world. What’s interesting is that they’ve done it by eschewing many of the business practices that are taught in today’s business schools, including the use of focus groups for market research.

Focus groups are a very common market research tool in which people in a group setting are asked about their perceptions, opinions, and attitudes toward a product, service, concept, or advertisement. Focus groups are heavily used in new product development, but they have a mixed track record. The classic focus group failure was ATMs. Focus group studies in the 1970s unequivocally showed that consumers would never, ever conduct any of their financial transactions via a machine. Today, there are over 2 million ATMs worldwide.

There was never any doubt where Steve Jobs stood on the topic of focus groups and market research in general. Apple has never used them and Steve Jobs had a couple of well-known quotes on the subject. One was borrowed from Henry Ford, who said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Steve Jobs also said that asking people what they wanted was pointless because they don’t know what is actually possible.

How does this apply to the water systems business? Well, a couple of years ago, I observed several focus groups of homeowners in which they talked about their private water systems. (They loved them by the way.) And, regardless of what Steve Jobs thought about focus groups, we gained some useful insights from them.

However, here’s where Steve Jobs was right: not a single homeowner complained or mentioned the pressure cycling that exists with a conventional water system. They couldn’t imagine it otherwise. Only when specially asked about it, did we hear things like, “Yes, the pressure fluctuates with the cycling, but that’s just the way it works. We simply schedule our water usage and don’t do two things at once.” Another homeowner stated that one of the perks of travel was the good, steady shower you get in a hotel. When asked if having their private water systems deliver consistent pressure would be a good thing, many said, “Well of course. That would be wonderful, but I don’t think you can do that.” 

These homeowners never asked for a constant pressure water system because they had no idea it was possible, let alone that it currently exists. As a water systems contractor–the EXPERT–you have a tremendous opportunity to not only sell a premium water system, but more importantly to surprise and delight your customer by showing him the impossible. As Apple has so often demonstrated, sometimes you just have to show him what you’ve got.

Your customer knows he needs water. You know how to make it happen.

Note: While Apple doesn’t flat out ask customers what they want, the company spends a lot of time observing how people use its products and trying to understand what they want to accomplish. Like Apple, don’t ever simply assume you know what your customer wants; figure it out by getting to know him and having a conversation–as I’ve mentioned in several previous posts.

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