Understanding and Fulfilling Client Needs vs. Wants

I have been thinking about a few instances lately where our team – myself included – felt we were in good shape on a project, that we had what the client wanted. I think this perception was based on what we believed the client needed. In the end, we were listening to ourselves and not the client. After some stresses and strains, we understood and delivered, but there was pain that could have been avoided or at least mitigated better.

As we all know, Wants and Needs can be two distinct things. But wants and needs can also change over the course of a project. Often, the change is driven by the provider's failure to fulfill either of them well enough to satisfy the client.

Here is my basic theory to the dynamics of Wants and Needs between two entities. (I am sure there is a doctoral thesis somewhere that is much more elegant about this.)

The more and the better we satisfy the needs, the better we can minimize the change in wants – and consequently, enjoy a more predictable outcome. For example: a client wants to see the cost of a contract. Assume there is a preconceived idea by both parties of the cost. (Is there ever not one?) The client needs and wants the cost to come in right on budget. If it's significantly off the budgeted amount, he or she now needs to see the backup. They need to see the difference for themselves.

What may have not even been a want before has now become a need. Along for the ride in this transition is angst, frustration, tension and other emotions that impact the relationship. In the course of this, efficiency is lost, further fueling the engine and causing strain. Such is the nature of human relationships.

But in business, success depends on how well the relationships are handled. In other words, how effectively are the needs and wants understood, anticipated and served?

One of our sister companies, Batson-Cook, has the motto, "The first thing we build is the relationship." I think their focus and prioritization of the relationship is a critical key to their success.

As technically oriented professionals, we are technical-solution oriented. By this, I mean we take so much satisfaction in achieving an elegant solution that we lose sight of the needs and wants that are the real demand creators for our solution in the first place. That elegant solution is of no value, or is of diminished value, if it is not communicated effectively and strategically to the client. Some considerations:

  • Do we have an understanding of how our solution can be communicated to the client?
  • Are we sensitive and strategic about communicating it differently to different stakeholders?
  • Are we taking the time and making the effort to optimize these communications?
  • What are we doing to continually improve these communications and deliverables?

An important step in this process is to establish a way to measure our progress. Austin is currently evaluating client feedback tools to solicit feedback from clients and prospects. This tool will be used after key interactions, from the start of the sales process, throughout the project, and after the project is completed. 

Andy Grove built Intel around the motto, "Paranoia of Complacency". In the professional services business, having a paranoia of complacency of how we are perceived by our clients is a critical step to success, prosperity and personal satisfaction in our work.

Satisfy the needs. Anticipate, even continually search out the wants and use them to manage the relationships to mutual benefit, and you'll have built the "better mousetrap."

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Our work is the presentation of our capabilities.”

Edward Gibbon

“A cardinal principle of Total Quality escapes too many managers: you cannot continuously improve interdependent systems and processes until you progressively perfect interdependent, interpersonal relationships.”

Stephen Covey