Distinguishing between customers’ nice-to-haves and gotta-haves …

Excerpted from: HBR, What Do Customers Really Want?, by Almquist & Lee, April 2009

Most customer-preference rating tools used in product development today are blunt instruments, primarily because consumers have a hard time articulating their real desires.

Asked to rate a long list of product attributes on a scale of 1 (“completely unimportant”) to 10 (“extremely important”), customers are apt to say they want many or even most of them.

To crack that problem, companies need a way to help customers sharpen the distinction between “nice to have” and “gotta have.”

Some companies are beginning to pierce the fog using a research technique called “Maximum Difference Scaling.” which requires customers to make a sequence of explicit trade-offs.

  • Researchers begin by amassing a list of product or brand attributes—typically from 10 to 40— that represent potential benefits.
  • Then they present respondents with sets of four or so attributes at a time, asking them to select which attribute of each set they prefer most and
    least.
  • Subsequent rounds of mixed groupings enable the researchers to identify the standing of each attribute relative to all the others by the number of times customers select it as their most or least important consideration.

A popular restaurant chain recently used MaxDiff to understand why its expansion efforts were misfiring. In a series of focus groups and preference surveys, consumers agreed about what they wanted: more healthful meal options and updated decor.

But, using MaxDiff showed that prompt service of hot meals and a convenient location were far more important to customers than healthful items and modern furnishings, which ended up well down on the list.

The best path forward was to improve kitchen service and select restaurant sites based on where customers worked.

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