We spend a lot of our time and energy as traders trying to find what our customers want but there is a good body of work that suggests we might become more profitable by doing something else.
Henry Ford had a famous saying - “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses". He suggests we shouldn't be asking our customers what they want but rather finding things they hadn't thought of – things that might do a better job of meeting their needs.
Steve Jobs, the inspirational leader of Apple, used to talk about designing products that customers hadn't thought of - "This is what customers pay us for - to sweat all these details so it's easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We're supposed to be really good at this. That doesn't mean we don't listen to customers, but it's hard for them to tell you what they want when they've never seen anything remotely like it."
If you design or make your own products then this concept has particular relevance but what about the grand body of retailing that is buying and selling other people's goods? Well, you can probably apply the same philosophy to your range of goods and the way you merchandise. Finding new products and new ways of displaying can open up opportunities for your customers that they may never have thought of. And the beauty of operating a small business is that we can experiment to our hearts content without taking huge financial risks.
So rather than asking customers what they want perhaps we should be doing the hard work, thinking outside the square, and finding things that will excite them in a whole lot of new ways.