Once you're on board with the idea of solving for customers' unmet needs, it's easy to fall into another trap: believing that they have needs they're unaware of, or latent needs. You might think: “If only I could discover these latent needs, I'd be a hero! Everyone would want my product!” But the truth is, your customers know exactly what they need. They just don't know how to make it, and they're not so great at expressing their needs. If you let yourself set out on a quest for these mythical latent needs, you'll be missing the very real unmet needs that you should be capitalizing on.

Here's one way that can play out. Let's say your company is the longstanding leader in the personal watercraft market. You’ve been making a successful line of stand up watercrafts since 1972, and your company is committed to innovation and pleasing the customer.

It’s the early '80s, and in line with your company philosophy, you ask your customers what they want in future models. Since the design of the craft dictates that they must stand in order to operate it, they resoundingly request better padding, so that standing up for a long ride would be more comfortable. You dutifully retool the stance to give your customers what they want. You aim to please!

So imagine your surprise when, in 1986, some upstart comes along with a sit-down watercraft and blows your product out of the proverbial water. As you watch your customers jump ship, you shake your head (and, okay maybe stomp your foot): Clearly these fickle customers didn’t know what they needed. It’s not your fault! You asked them what they wanted you to do!

And from this humbling experience, you conclude that customers must, by and large, have latent needs -- ones that they either don’t know about, or simply can’t articulate.

If you recall our discussion about all the ways feedback gathering can go wrong, this scenario will sound familiar to you. It's actually how the Kawasaki Jet Ski lost their market lead when Yamaha introduced the Waverunner, the first sit down personal watercraft, in 1986. And while it isn’t a matter of record that the decision makers chalked it up to the latent needs of confused customers, the balance of probability would indicate that at least some of them did just that. After all, the myth of latent customer needs runs deep, and it’s a compelling one.

There’s just one wrinkle: Latent needs don't exist. And the choice to either cling to this comforting myth -- or to let it go -- can mean the difference between a massive flop or a huge success.

The Roots of the Latent Needs Myth

There are a number of reasons this myth of latent customer needs has become so pervasive. For one thing, it's easy to believe that you aren't the one who got it all wrong. After assessing the facts, you may understandably conclude that the massive market misfire occurred because the customers you spoke to simply didn't know, or couldn't articulate, their own needs.

And this mistaken belief is supported with the weight of authority in the form of the oft-misunderstood (and misquoted) Steve Jobs axiom: “Customers don’t know what they want.” But, as Inigo Montoya might say, we do not think this phrase means what you think it means. As Jobs-To-be-Done proponent Anthony Ulwick explains, this quote has been taken wildly out of context to support an incorrect belief: “First, Steve Jobs said: ‘you can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.’” Ulwick says. “And second he said ‘you‘ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology – not the other way around.’”

To get the full sense of Jobs’ meaning, Ulwick suggests the addition of two words: products and jobs-to-be-done. By combining the two statements and adding these (implied) words, Ulwick believes you’ll get to the real meaning behind them, which is: “‘Customers don’t know what products (i.e. solutions and technologies) they want, but they certainly know what job-to-be-done (i.e. customer experience) they need to accomplish.’”

And there’s another misunderstanding that’s responsible for the belief in latent customer needs: People confuse needs with solutions. When the people at Kawasaki asked their customers what they should do to improve their product, they dutifully acted on the answer: They put more padding on the stance. But “please put more padding on the stance” isn’t a need. It isn’t even technically a want. It’s a solution. And customers aren’t the ones who should be coming up with solutions. That’s your job, and the job of your engineers, designers, and technicians.

Those Kawasaki customers didn’t have latent needs. They knew what they needed, they knew what their desired outcome was -- a more comfortable watercraft experience -- but the well-meaning product team at Kawasaki didn’t ask about needs. Instead, they asked their customers for solutions. Kawasaki made the fatal, but common, mistake of confusing a solution with a need.

Defining Your Terms

So the problem, then, does not lie with asking your customers questions. The problem is what you ask them, and how you ask it. Look at it this way: You cannot make a solution for a need that doesn't exist. And you can’t satisfy your customers without addressing their needs. When you (incorrectly) ask them what you should do or what they want you to do, you’re really asking them to come up with solutions. When those solutions don’t catch on, you then point to the (nonexistent) latent needs that (you believe) they couldn’t express to you.

But here’s the thing: You customers do know their needs. They do know their desired outcomes. They know what job they would hire your product to do. It’s your job to uncover these unmet needs and to create a product (solution) that will fill those needs. And the best way to do that is to be crystal clear and consistent in your definition of customer needs. If Kawasaki had uncovered the real unmet customer need of a more comfortable ride, they may have innovated a sit-down jet ski to fill this need, rather than wasting time and losing market share padding out their standing models.

Once you come to terms with the idea that there is no such thing as a latent customer need, you can stop spinning your wheels.  Now you can embrace the methodology that will help you uncover your customer's very real, very discoverable, and very knowable needs. Then, and only then, you can finally succeed at crafting real solutions in the form of successful products.